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Hamilton and the Iconoclasts of Tomorrow

This week, 216 years ago, one founding father killed another in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. On that early July morning, the vice president of the United States squared off against the former secretary of the treasury. As virtually everyone in America now knows, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton didn’t survive the shootout with Aaron Burr.

At the beginning of this month, Disney released the film version of Miranda’s blockbuster musical, Hamilton. So, I could finally see this extraordinary synthesis of history, biography, music, and dance.

As a musical, it’s riveting.

As political commentary, however, it’s surprisingly dated.

America’s Musical

Hamilton debuted five years ago, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term. Just as Obama was daily reimagining the American presidency, Hamilton reimagined the American Revolution and the creation of the United States.

By casting people of color as the Founding Fathers — Washington, Jefferson, Madison —  the musical speaks to the universality of that eighteenth-century struggle and visually links the oppression of Americans at the hands of British colonialism to the oppression of people everywhere. It’s both a projection backward of Obama’s breakthrough and a lyrical version of an Obama speech.

Hamilton is radical in form: the casting, the incorporation of rap. The content, however, is quite mainstream. Aside from a couple references to slavery and the interests of wealthy bankers, it celebrates the spirit of 1776 in a way that Americans of all political persuasions can embrace.

And have embraced. On November 18, 2016, only a week after that gut punch of an election, Mike Pence attended a show, which prompted the actor portraying Aaron Burr to say at the close, “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

It was a message from one rogue vice president to another.

Pence “appeared to enjoy the show and applauded liberally,” NPR reported. And for the next three years, he ignored the remonstration. Pence and Trump, too, portrayed themselves as revolutionary underdogs — rather than the reactionary overlords they really were — who wanted to be in “the room where it happens.” They, too, were not going to throw away their shot.

Now, in perhaps the supreme designation of mainstream status, Disney has made Hamilton available to the masses. How times have changed.

In 2020, thanks to the coronavirus, live theater seems impossibly risky (why are the performers touching each other? How can the audience sit so close together?). And, with protesters on the street challenging Washington and Jefferson over their slave ownership, the musical suddenly seems behind the times, though not nearly as backward as Aunt Jemima and the soon to be former Washington Redskins.

As A.O. Scott recently pointed out in The New York Times, “There’s been a bit of a backlash from the left against what’s perceived as an insufficiently critical perspective on slavery (and also on Hamilton’s role in the birth of American capitalism). At the same time, the extent to which Miranda celebrates America’s political traditions has been taken up as a cudgel against the supposed illiberalism of the statue-topplers and their allies.”

Miranda himself has acknowledged the criticisms from the left. History doesn’t stand still for anyone, not Thomas Jefferson, not Alexander Hamilton, not Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The Great and the Not-So-Great

What’s remarkable of course is the speed with which the political temperament has changed. In a few short months, statues have fallen throughout the United States, and not just those dedicated to the Confederate cause.

Also torn down or relocated are statues honoring figures associated with the genocide of indigenous people (Christopher Columbus), with slave-owning (Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler), and with racist policing (former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo). Statues connected to colonialism have fallen in the UK, Belgium, and elsewhere. Everything, it seems, is up for debate, even monuments to the heroes of the American Revolution.

We fully expect books and plays written in the 1950s to seem dated. Ditto those produced in the 1970s or even the 1990s.

But 2015?

The critiques of American failings — slavery, colonialism, racist policing — are not new. What’s changed is that the powerful have been forced to listen.

Perhaps Hamilton, despite its slighting of slavery and reverence for the Founding Fathers, even played a role in preparing the powerful for this shift. But let’s be real: the destruction of images — literally, iconoclasm — is a lighter lift than the transformation of structures. It’s one thing to take down Confederate statues, and quite another to remove racism’s grip on housing, education, and employment. Likewise, it’s more politically palatable to recast a play about the Founding Fathers than to grapple with the ugly truths that accompanied the founding of this nation.

At a deeper level, the musical and the statues share a common veneration of the Great Person. History, we are constantly reminded in art and monuments, is the product of founding fathers, great conquerors, kings and presidents and prime ministers. Campaigns are launched to diversify those numbers to include women, people of color, perhaps even an activist or two like Martin Luther King Jr. But the focus remains on the individual, not the countless people who turned the gears of history, planted the fields of history, occupied the streets of history, and ultimately changed the course of history.

As Hamilton acknowledges, Great Persons are always a product of their time and place, and they’re always flawed in some way or another. Sometimes those flaws are of an individual nature, like Hamilton’s adultery (or, more recently, the sexual harassment charges against Park Won Soon, the progressive activist and former mayor of Seoul who committed suicide last week).

More often, the famous personages are as blind to their faults as most everyone else in their society. Transforming society requires a collective effort to shine a light on these blind spots, as the Black Lives Matter movement has done, at home and abroad, around police violence, racist iconography, and the legacy of colonialism.

Iconoclasts of the Future, Unite!

So, perhaps it’s time to conduct a thought experiment. We’ve seen how quickly culture has moved on and left the blind spots of Hamilton more readily visible. How will future generations condemn us for our blind spots as they tear down today’s statues tomorrow?

I can almost hear our children gathering in the street to pull down the statues of the famous as they chant, “Carbon hog!” For will not contribution to the destruction of the planet ultimately be seen in the same light as colonialism, as the plunder and robbery of future generations?

Emancipation of slaves was a radical act in eighteenth-century America. The Polish revolutionary Tadeusz Kosciuszko berated his friend Thomas Jefferson at length to free his slaves, and Jefferson ignored him because, just as Pence shrugged off Aaron Burr, he could. Jefferson certainly had mixed feelings about slavery, but he was able to maintain the contradiction in his life of slave ownership and sentiments like “all men are created equal” because popular opinion, as opposed to Kosciuszko’s opinion, allowed him to do so.

Future generations may feel the same way about our simultaneous recognition of the perils of climate change and our car ownership, air travel, and use of air conditioning. Greta Thunberg, our generation’s Kosciuszko, similarly berates world leaders, and with as little immediate impact.

Future generations may also look askance at our nationalism. Why do we believe that we owe debts of obligation to strangers who live within certain borders and not strangers who live outside those borders? How could we countenance the return of desperate migrants and refugees to, in many cases, their certain death?

And what about all the statues raised to military leaders? It seems rather ridiculous to honor men who oversaw the slaughter of others just because they were on the winning side. Future generations may well look at all the celebrated generals as so many mass murderers.

Speaking of mass murder, how will future generations feel about the millions of animals that we kill every day for our own consumption? Or even the millions that we own as pets?

The list of potential blind spots is long indeed, and there are plenty of motes in my own eye. History is constantly evolving. There is no timeless art; there are no timeless values. Everything reflects the moment of its production, from the American Constitution to the latest iteration of Hamilton. We are engaged in a long, collective conversation enlivened by a soundtrack of insightful speeches, catchy tunes, and the rising roar of street protest.

As for those future statues, I dearly hope that they are pulled down, defaced, disgraced. Because that would mean, in a future of superstorms and nuclear threats and periodic pandemics, that at least there are still people around to take them down.

FPIF, July 15, 2020

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Articles Featured Human Rights

Killmonger’s World

Donald Trump has now assembled a cabinet of men that have elevated violence to a supreme virtue at home and abroad.

Men like Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and Trump himself. They are all firm believers in armed domination.

In this respect, they share an unlikely bond with Erik Killmonger, the villain of the movie Black Panther. He’s an angry orphan who has been rejected by Wakanda, the magical kingdom in Africa that produces superheroes like the Black Panther. His Wakandan father married an African-American woman, plotted an armed uprising in the United States, and died at the hands of the countrymen sent to bring him home.

Killmonger, just a boy at the time, grows up with a love-hate relationship with the paternal homeland that killed his father. He studies at MIT to gain engineering expertise. He joins the Marines and chalks up countless kills in his multiple tours overseas. And he nurses a desire to transform Wakanda into a global hegemon.

At one point in the film, Killmonger laments that Wakanda never supplied African Americans with the guns to overthrow the white power structure. He plans to change all that when he dethrones the Black Panther and takes over as king of Wakanda. He wants to send weapons to help oppressed people all around the world rise up against their neo-colonial rulers.

It might seem odd to call Trump’s national security team — all of them white, right-wing hawks — a group of Killmongers. Certainly, they lack the nuance and complex backstory that make Killmonger interesting.

Still, for all of his revolutionary rhetoric directed against neo-colonialism, at some level Erik Killmonger is an apt stand-in for U.S. foreign policy. He believes that security comes from the barrel of a gun. He doesn’t care about collateral damage. He kills as a means to an end, and that end justifies all variety of violent means. He is the Black Panther’s version of a neocon: an ideologue committed to regime change through violence. Like a neocon, he might articulate lofty aims, but he is, ultimately, focused solely on the assertion of power.

Similarly, the U.S. government believes it essential to gun down terrorists (through night raids or drone attacks) regardless of the number of civilians who die in the process. It’s a comparably grim worldview that the National Rifle Association also shares. Arm the teachers in schools in order to take down shooters and accept the inevitable collateral damage to all the others who die by mistake.

This is Killmonger’s world. He is, as his name suggests, a merchant of death. He is a product of America and America’s wars. And his real-world counterparts have helped turned death into America’s number one export.

Turning the Tables

Black Panther delights in upending stereotypes. There are only a couple white characters, and they occupy the roles usually reserved for African Americans: the villain, the sidekick, the extras who don’t have any lines.

The story concerns a country in Africa that has rich resources but has decidedly avoided the resource curse. The generals of Wakanda are women, not stodgy men, and they practically steal the movie. The nerdy genius is also a woman, and she’s a quantum leap beyond Bond’s Q.

It’s thrilling to see so many interesting and powerful African and African-American characters on the big screen.

Erik Killmonger defies stereotypes in some ways as well. He speaks like someone who grew up in the ‘hood. But he also has an MIT degree and a distinguished military career. He speaks on behalf of the oppressed. But he’s mostly interested in acquiring power for himself.

Killmonger is also the only African-American character in the movie. And that has raised some concerns about the film’s representation of Black America — in contrast to the advanced state of Wakanda.

Yes, Killmonger is in many ways an attractive figure — and not just because he’s played by the versatile actor Michael B. Jordan. He has a sympathetic backstory, and he effectively exposes the hypocrisy of the isolationist Wakanda. As such, he’s cultivated quite a fan base on-line.

But — spoiler alert for the dozen readers who haven’t yet seen it — the film sets up Killmonger as the anti-hero determined to defeat and kill his cousin, T’Challa, the Black Panther. It’s the wise African versus the dangerous kid from the American ghetto. Writes Christopher Lebron in Boston Review:

[I]n a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks. In a fight that takes a shocking turn, T’Challa lands a fatal blow to Killmonger, lodging a spear in his chest. As the movie uplifts the African noble at the expense of the black American man, every crass principle of modern black respectability politics is upheld.  

In 2018, a world home to both the Movement for Black Lives and a president who identifies white supremacists as fine people, we are given a movie about black empowerment where the only redeemed blacks are African nobles. They safeguard virtue and goodness against the threat not of white Americans or Europeans, but a black American man, the most dangerous person in the world.

Killmonger’s vision — of armed rebellion — dies with him. In its place, an African version of the Gates Foundation, providing education and health care the world over, emerges victorious. According to the politics of Black Panther, this is a happy ending.

But is it?

The Wakanda Solution

Black Panther offers three alternatives to the current global status quo.

Wakanda could remain in splendid isolation as a prosperous, oligarchical society. The elders have both preserved the ways of the ancestors and created a futuristic society that has leapfrogged over the capabilities of the so-called industrialized world, an appealing combination of Afro-pastoralism and Afrofuturism. It’s a mirror image of a country like Japan, which has largely closed its borders to immigrants in an effort to preserve a similar mix of bullet trains and geisha culture.

But some members of the Wakandan royalty — notably the Black Panther’s sister — are uncomfortable with this isolationism. Spurred on in part by Killmonger’s challenge, the country decides that it must save the world. It even makes a presentation to the United Nations to that effect in a scene that takes place after the credits have begun to roll.

This is an interesting gloss on the usual superhero film in which a single individual saves the world. But it still relies on the paternalistic benevolence of those at the top, not a transformation pushed by people from below.

The third path is Killmonger’s, whereby a group of Black Jacobins takes over with the help of Wakanda’s magical technology. This is the movie’s greatest injustice: to present this third alternative of radical transformation as the narrow vision of Killmonger alone, someone who can’t conceive of any revolution that isn’t violent.

Consider, for instance, how Killmonger misreads history by asserting that Black radicals failed in America because they didn’t have enough arms. That’s wrong on two levels.

More guns wouldn’t have worked for the simple reason that African Americans were outnumbered — and considerably outgunned. The civil rights movement’s emphasis on non-violence was not simply a moral choice but a strategic one — just like revolutions from below in India, Poland, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

But the second reason Killmonger was wrong is that guns actually did play an often-unheralded role in the civil rights movement. Particularly in rural communities outside the media spotlight — as the book Praying for Sheetrock revealed some years ago and journalist Charles Cobb documented more recently in This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed — African Americans relied on guns as a just-in-case deterrent against white racist violence.

So, radical transformation doesn’t require guns. And even when guns have played a role in non-violent movements, they served largely as an insurance policy, as self-defense — not as the means to spark all-out war.

At a time when hundreds of thousands of people rallied against guns and gun violence over the last week, a movement led by many young people of color, America must address the Killmonger ideology that underlies so much of domestic and foreign policy. It must reckon not only with the racist history of gun violence — revealed so powerfully in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Loaded — but with how far-right ideologies rely on armed violence today. It must come to terms with the fact that it’s not such a big gap between extremist militias at home and what John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Donald Trump want to do abroad.

Erik Killmonger, alas, is all too real, and he is everywhere. But he is not an African-American neocon bent on taking over the world. Rather, you will find him in white Cabinet members, white NRA lobbyists, white militia men, and (mostly) white school shooters. And for better or worse, there’s no Wakanda out there that can stop them.

That job must fall to us, a multiracial movement against violence.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, April 4, 2018

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Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

The Insurrectionists

Don’t kid yourself: 2016 was a revolutionary year in the United States.

Yes, I know, the United States is a deeply conservative country. Americans don’t engage in periodic attempts to overthrow the system. There is no viable political party that threatens the status quo. When protesters gather in Washington, they have no intention of storming Congress, the White House, or the Federal Reserve.

The most radical movements, like Occupy Wall Street, are leaderless and amorphous, and thus toothless.

Americans are so conservative that the revolution that created the country in the 18th century appears in history books as more a break from England than a break from tradition.

So, when a revolution does occur, Americans can’t even recognize what’s in front of their eyes.

The election of Donald Trump last year was revolutionary — even though it took place through established institutions and had all the hallmarks of a reaction (to the Obama “revolution”). Trump supporters thrilled to their candidate’s promises to tear down everything that hitherto represented the establishment: all politicians, Wall Street, the Pentagon, federal institutions, Hollywood, even the international community.

This urge to destroy even carried over to the cultural level, where Trump effectively abolished “political correctness” — a derogatory term for what other folks would just call being respectful. Such a sweeping transformation of social conventions was comparable to French revolutionaries creating their own calendar, replacing the names of the months with such peculiarities as Brumaire and Thermidor.

Don’t be fooled by Trump’s own elite cred. Many revolutionaries — George Washington, Lenin — came from the same segment of society that they aimed to overthrow. Also, don’t fall for the “restoration” rhetoric of the Trumpistas. The America of the past that they invoke is imaginary. They are out to construct a bold, new America that combines elements of the past — racism, homophobia, extreme wealth — with a new vision of shrunken government and corporations run amok. It is an overturning of the liberal order that has prevailed for much of the last century.

Of course, the Trump victory resulted from the same kind of improbabilities as most revolutions. His electoral margin was miniscule (a matter of some 80,000 votes in three key states, though he in fact lost the overall popular vote by millions more). He benefited from the huge intervention of unrestricted “dark money” made possible by the 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court. And he had the twin tailwinds of WikiLeaks and Russian digital skullduggery (which might have been a single tailwind, protestations of Julian Assange notwithstanding).

In other words, Trump didn’t represent an overwhelming urge by a majority of Americans to upend their own society. Ever since Russian revolutionaries called themselves Bolsheviks (the majoritarians) when they were so manifestly the political minority, insurrectionists have made misleading claims about their popular support. Trump is a man of the (ever-diminishing slice of the) people.

There’s another important revolutionary aspect to consider. All revolutions are doomed to eat their own children. The insurrectionists have their knives out. The bloody feast has begun.

A Russian Meal

In the old days, when insurrectionists feared a counter-coup and had to clear out of the royal palace as soon as possible, they stole whatever they could easily transport — the silverware, a few bottles of fine wine, priceless paintings sliced from their frames and rolled up.

Trump and his cronies always planned a grand looting of the commonwealth. But the increased tempo of their snatch and grab in recent days suggests that they’re feeling a certain desperation as the Russiagate noose tightens. There’s the gerrymandering of the two national monuments in Utah that will open up vast tracts to energy and mineral companies. There’s the tax reform package that will reward America’s wealthiest. There’s the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which is a big give-away to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his U.S. backers.

Even if they believe that they can escape the Russian probe, the Trump insurrectionists are certainly worried about next year’s mid-term elections. They are checking their watches to see how much longer they can use their positions for maximum personal benefit.

Yes, of course, they all protest loudly that they’re serving their country. But you probably didn’t hear the mumbled end of their sentence. They’re serving their country…to the wolves.

Now, in a fitting turnabout, they are also worried about being served.

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has already pleaded guilty to lying about his Russia contacts. The plea also involves cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller. That means that the investigation will acquire more details not only about what took place after the election, but also before the election.

In light of the ongoing revelations, major administration figures have had to recast their earlier stories of their contact with Russia and WikiLeaks, including the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. We used to call such initial statements “perjury.” But revolutionary times demand a new revolutionary language: and thus Kushner and Sessions simply “misremembered.”

The president has already tried to diminish the importance of earlier indictments against former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates, as well as foreign policy advisor George Papadopolous. It won’t be so easy for Trump to diminish the importance of Kushner or Sessions. As we slouch further into this era of implausible deniability, the president himself will be backed against the wall, not by counter-revolutionaries with pitchforks but lawyers with summonses. Imagine all the delicious secrets contained in his tax returns alone.

Of course, it’s not just the Russia probe that’s causing a change of personnel in the Trump administration. Infighting, scandal, and sheer incompetence have already claimed Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon, Tom Price, Reince Priebus, Anthony Scaramucci, and Sebastian Gorka.

As in any revolution, the truly ruthless are waiting in the wings for their chance. Rumors abound of a shake-up at the highest level that would expel Rex Tillerson, a relative vegetarian among the carnivores, and replace him at secretary of state with the truly repellent Mike Pompeo. The new CIA chief, according to The New York Times report that Trump later blasted as “fake news,” would be Tom Cotton. The young Arkansas Republican will soon be the standard-bearer for the new Republican Party, someone who can combine the aggression of the neo-cons with the social conservativism and “common touch” of the Trump wing.

Look upon 2020 and despair! Cotton is far more dangerous than Trump or even the telegenic evangelist Mike Pence.

Such is the logic of revolution. After Lenin: Stalin.

On the Bright Side

As with all revolutions, the Trump insurrection has opened people’s eyes to the potential instability of all that had previously seemed solid. If the Clinton dynasty could come to an end at the hands of someone so obviously ill equipped to lead the country, then perhaps the institutions of the status quo are not as firmly entrenched as conventional wisdom would make them out to be.

First off, the victory of an outsider has encouraged other outsiders, this time on the progressive side of the spectrum, to get involved in politics, from transgender candidate Danica Roehm snagging a seat in the Virginia state house to Liberian refugee Wilmot Collins becoming mayor of Helena, Montana. There are two Indivisible chapters in every congressional district, and much of the new electoral energy is coming from women. According to Emily’s List, 20,000 women have thrown their hat into the political ring (including my former IPS colleague Daphne Wysham, who is running for a seat in the Oregon statehouse).

The resistance is not confined to the electoral arena. The Black Lives Matter movement is mobilizing with renewed energy against the uptick in racism in the Trump era.

Then there’s the widespread resistance to sexual harassment.

At one level, the accusations that continue to take down powerful men in the entertainment industry, politics, commerce, and journalism represent the determination by victims to get rid of the “bad eggs.” But such a campaign promises to be much more: a thoroughgoing resistance to the combination of privilege (generally male) and power (also overwhelmingly male).

Replacing a few malefactors is hardly revolutionary. Transforming American institutions so that they no longer reproduce patriarchy — well, that’s a paradigm shift.

Revolution is in the air. Why should the far right have all the fun?

Foreign Policy In Focus, December 6, 2017

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Articles Featured Human Rights

Who’s a Bad Jew?

In the TV show Transparent, the Pfeffermans are an infuriating family.

Mort, the patriarch, is transitioning to Maura, and much of the focus of the show is on the transgender experience. But it’s hard to miss that Maura and her three children, not to mention ex-wife Shelly, are narcissists who wreak havoc on anyone who comes into emotional proximity.

It’s a brilliant portrayal of complex characters. It’s also cringe TV at its best.

The self-critical portrayal of Jews — creator Jill Soloway patterned the Pfeffermans on her own family experiences — is a staple of American entertainment, from Woody Allen movies to Curb Your Enthusiasm on television. The recent play Bad Jews picks up on these themes in its depiction of a trio of cousins who fight over their grandfather’s necklace on the eve of his funeral. It’s also a central preoccupation of literature from the novels of Philip Roth to the stories of Nathan Englander — literature that, when I was growing up as a secular Jew in New Jersey, served as my cultural lodestar.

A “bad Jew” in this context is not simply someone who eats bacon or makes light of the High Holidays or (god forbid!) marries a shiksa. Nor is this the “bad Jew” of anti-Semitic literature — the vile, conspiratorial, money-hungry caricature. The “bad Jew” who secretly controls the world doesn’t exist.

No, the “bad Jews” I mean are neither Seinfelds nor Shylocks. They may or may not be religiously observant, but they are certainly not socially observant. They are selfish and self-serving and don’t care a fig about the good of the whole. They are the opposite of a mensch, a Yiddish word that means a person of integrity.

Such “bad Jews” don’t just exist in the world of imagination. Such selfishness can be found in the actions of individuals and certain Jewish communities in the United States and Israel. It’s difficult for non-Jews to criticize the actions of “bad Jews” without risking the label of “anti-Semitic.” But fortunately, as in the entertainment world, there are voices within the Jewish community that are taking them to task.

Israel and the Occupation

In small communities in the New York area, ultra-Orthodox residents send their children to private religious schools and complain about paying taxes to support the public schools.

A few years ago, the Hasidim of East Ramapo, New York decided to do something about it. As This American Life reports, they organized politically to elect members of the local school board. The Hasids were so successful that they managed to take over the whole board. Then they began to cut funding to the local public schools, where most of the students are African American and Latino. The resulting feud became real ugly, real fast.

The ultra-Orthodox of East Ramapo are not the only Americans who have seceded from public schools. Plenty of Christians now advocate an “exodus” from public education. Entire states like Arizona and Kansas are providing tax credits that help parochial schools. But the East Ramapo case is particularly painful because of the racial divide, the naked contempt for majoritarian values, and the fact that poor Jews of an earlier generation received tremendous benefits from public schools.

The ultra-Orthodox have had an equally powerful impact in Israel. With an average of 6.5 children — the rate for Israel as a whole is closer to 3 — the ultra-Orthodox have acquired political power commensurate with their increasing numbers (the Shas party, with 11 seats in the Knesset, even plays a kingmaker role). They control the prayers at the Western Wall and who ultimately, in Israel’s system, can be considered Jewish.

They are also increasingly settling in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank. Nearly one-third of all Israeli settlers are now ultra-Orthodox. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews were initially opposed to settling the West Bank,” reports The Forward. “But overcrowding in Jerusalem and in Orthodox sections of the Tel Aviv metro area have made settlement an easy choice for many.”

Settlers, both ultra-Orthodox and others, care very little about those who live outside their gated communities. They are as collectively narcissistic in their own way as the Pfeffermans. They are as singularly uninterested in the larger common good as the East Ramapo Hasids. Indeed, “bad Jews” can best be characterized by a “settlement mentality.” It’s a zero-sum, us-versus-them, build-the-walls-higher kind of thinking.

The settlements of Israelis in Palestinian territory stem from a war that took place 50 years ago. In 1967, Israel defeated Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in a six-day conflict. It annexed East Jerusalem and seized control of the West Bank and Golan Heights. There are today about 420,000 Israeli settlers in 126 settlements in the West Bank.

David Shulman, an Israeli expert on the languages of India, has written perceptively about the devastating consequences of the settlements on Palestinians as well as the corrosive impact on Israelis. In his most recent piece in The New York Review of Books, he writes:

The settlers themselves, however obnoxious, bear only a portion of the blame for the atrocities they commit. They carry out the policies of the Israeli government, in effect maintaining a useful, steady level of state terror directed against a large civilian population. None of this can be justified by rational argument. All of it stains the character of the state and has, in my experience, horrific effects on the minds and hearts of young soldiers who have to carry out the orders they are given. A few unusually aware and conscientious ones have had the courage to speak out; as always in such situations, most people just go along.

For many Palestinians and others, of course, the settlements are just the more recent outrage. The establishment of the Israeli state was accompanied by the nakba, or the expulsion, of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. This “original sin” of the Israeli state is one shared by many other countries — for instance, the United States and the slaughter of Native Americans or Australia and the subjugation of the Aborigines.

Israel’s sin, however, has not been obscured by the passage of hundreds of years or expiated by an apology (like Australia Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s heartfelt 2008 apology and some subsequent compensation packages for indigenous Australians). Worse, the Israeli government, by refusing a two-state solution and continuing to support new settlements, has only compounded the problem.

Who’s a Good Jew?

George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier, elicits very strong reactions. Some praise him for his efforts to strengthen civil society around the world through the Open Society Foundation (full disclosure: I’ve received a fellowship from the foundation) and his embrace of internationalism. Others criticize his investment decisions, such as his bet on the British currency to plummet, which netted him a billion dollars and cost British taxpayers a pretty pence.

Still others see in Soros an opportunity for anti-Semitism.

Earlier this month, the Hungarian government of Viktor Orban, who was once a beneficiary of Soros largesse, mounted an attack on the financier philanthropist. With posters and TV ads, it accused Soros of supporting the migration of millions of refugees to Europe, some of whom might find their way to Hungary. The campaign relied on some familiar anti-Semitic tropes — like Soros as a puppet master controlling the opposition Socialist Party’s candidate for prime minister — and it generated a good amount of explicitly anti-Semitic graffiti. Both the Hungarian Jewish community and the Israeli ambassador to Hungary issued strongly worded condemnations of the ad campaign.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, felt differently. He ordered the foreign ministry to retract the Israeli ambassador’s statement. In its place, the ministry said, “In no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”

Soros, in other words, is a “bad Jew” because he has the temerity to fund groups that “defame the Jewish state.” So, who has Soros funded? Hamas? Hezbollah? The Iranian government?!

No, he has provided some support to J Street, a progressive organization that is explicitly pro-Israel. He’s also funded an Israeli human rights organization (B’Tselem) and Breaking the Silence, a organization started by Israeli Defense Forces veterans who are speaking out against the state’s occupation policies.

To my mind, all this makes George Soros a mensch, a Jew who is thinking about the good of the whole. He is trying to defend the least powerful — migrants, Palestinian disposed. He is using his gains, however gotten, to help others with their losses.

So, what does that make Benjamin Netanyahu?

Western Wall

In January 2016, the Israeli government brokered an agreement that men and women could pray together at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It took five years to negotiate the controversial deal.

Last month, however, Netanyahu pulled out of the agreement, bowing to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox political factions. Jewish organizations around the world immediately leapt to criticize the Israeli prime minister.

The debate is not just over who can pray at the Western Wall. It’s a battle between modernists and traditionalists. The Shas party wants to drag Israel back to some imagined past in the same way that Salafists want to recreate 6th-century Islam throughout the Muslim world. The ultra-Orthodox have ultra-conservative social views (on women, on LGBT issues) and want the state to impose the Jewish version of sharia law.

They have even begun to reverse their traditional hostility toward Zionism. As The Jerusalem Post reports, 120 years after the founding of the Hasidim, “a Hasid is a minister in the Zionist government; thousands of ultra-Orthodox men serve in the Zionist army, and a plethora of ultra-Orthodox colleges lead thousands into the Zionist state’s economic beehive and social mainstream.”

This is an intra-Jewish struggle. Ultimately, it is about who is a good Jew and who is a bad Jew — and who gets to make that definition.

Gil Steinlauf, a Conservative rabbi in the Washington, DC area, has written about his blacklisting by the official religious authority of the Israeli government, the Rabbanut. Steinlauf’s more pluralistic Judaism and his progressive take on social issues have meant that the Rabbanut rejects his endorsement of immigrants trying to prove their Jewishness in order to move to Israel. Again, it comes down to the influence of the ultra-Orthodox. Steinlauf writes,

Israel has no separation of synagogue and state, and since 1948, ultra-Orthodox Jews have had the sole authority over personal-status issues in Israeli law. Moreover, ultra-Orthodox groups wield considerable power in the Israeli parliament and exert great influence over legislation. This lethal mixture of politics and religion is tearing apart the Jewish world through this list and similar exclusionary tactics.

These voices within the Jewish community — criticizing the occupation, funding progressive Jewish organizations, coming out against the tyranny of the ultra-Orthodox — are as vital as the Christian voices challenging the religious intolerance of the Church and Muslim voices challenging Salafist orthodoxy.

Ultimately, you don’t have to be Jewish to be a mensch. It’s about how you deal with people, period, whether they’re like you or not like you.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 19, 2017

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Articles Eastern Europe Europe Featured

How to Reinvent the European Left

The last thing Europe needs right now is advice from Americans, particularly American progressives.

After all, we failed to prevent Donald Trump and his cronies from seizing the White House or the far-right wing of the Republican Party from taking over Congress. Before that, we were unable to push President Obama to the left on critical domestic issues like health care or to dismantle the worst features of the U.S. war economy.

Still, an outside perspective can sometimes be useful. And I write this letter not only out of great concern but out of an even greater affection.

The European left has been one of the most powerful and successful progressive movements in history. It was the motive force behind European integration, which brought peace and prosperity to a war-torn continent. It entrenched social welfare policies so thoroughly that even conservative political parties — like Germany’s Christian Democrats — have accepted the basic tenets. It promoted cultural policies that have made Europe one of the most tolerant places on Earth.

All of that is now at risk because of a pincer attack by right-wing populism and neo-liberal globalism. And the European left is at perhaps its weakest position since the end of World War II.

Consider the recent presidential election in France.

The French have turned back the National Front’s Marine Le Pen — vive la France! But it wasn’t a victory for the left, which failed to pull together before the election or convince enough voters to advance a leftist into the second round.

The incumbent Socialist Party attracted only 6 percent in the first round of voting. Progressive candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who abandoned the Socialist Party, pulled in a more respectable 20 percent — but then refused to back centrist Emmanuel Macron in the run-off. As many as one-fifth of Melenchon’s supporters were prepared to vote for Le Pen, while nearly one-third were so disgusted with the choice in the second round that they preferred not to vote at all.

The center and the far right have lured away the base of the French left. Macron and his new centrism have captured the pro-European, multicultural, and youth vote. Le Pen, meanwhile, has made inroads with the economic left with her unabashedly anti-globalization, pro-working class program. What’s left for the French left is nostalgia and, in the case of Melenchon, a ridiculous foreign policy that embraces authoritarians of the right (Vladimir Putin of Russia) and left (Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela).

It’s not just France. The Labor Party in the UK is poised for a historic rout in the upcoming elections. Spain, Denmark, Poland, and Hungary are all in the hands of conservative parties. Right-wing populism, which received a shot in the arm by the Brexit vote, has laid siege to the European Union. The far right has made strong bids for power recently in Austria and the Netherlands. In the battle between the left’s internationalism and the far right’s xenophobia, the latter seems to be getting the upper hand.

The European left is in need of reinvention. Here’s a few unsolicited recommendations.

A Four-Point Plan

  1. Support the European Union — a reformed European Union.

The UK Labor Party made an enormous mistake by not coming out strongly against the Brexit vote. Some MPs worked tirelessly against Brexit (and one, Jo Cox, was even assassinated for her beliefs). But the Labor Party leadership, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, didn’t do enough to present a unified party message or rally the base to keep Britain in the EU. It will now suffer the political consequences of its decision in the upcoming British elections.

There are good reasons to be disenchanted with the EU. It’s not a particularly democratic institution. It has supported economic policies that result in greater inequality — both within and between member countries.

But, as I’ve written elsewhere, “reasons for disenchantment are not the same as reasons for disengagement. After all, the EU remains a far greener and more equitable economic space than the United States. Brexit is a wake-up call for proponents of European integration to transform the EU into a more perfect union: by making its political structures more accountable and its economic benefits more evenly distributed.”

This should be the program of the left: a new Europe.

  1. Champion a new progressive economic platform.

Melenchon attracted a good number of supporters with his Keynesian proposals to inject 100 billion euros into the French economy, impose higher taxes on the rich, and increase social welfare programs. It was a bold, but expensive program.

Melenchon gestured in the direction of sustainability, but the left has to put environmentalism at the very center of a new economic policy. The most feasible method of challenging the global economic order — with its gross inequalities, its structural corruption, its utter callousness — is with the lever of climate change. This is the threat that the left can use not just to rein in the worst excesses of neoliberalism but to restructure the global economy.

At the same time, voters are disgusted with entrenched bureaucracies — and that applies to old-style unions and the civil service as well. Young people throughout Europe can’t get jobs because of these fossilized bureaucracies. The European left has to embrace innovation and not just redistribution. The flexisecurity model developed by Denmark in the 1990s — which focuses on training workers for new jobs rather than trying to preserve old unproductive jobs, all within a strong social welfare state — was one such innovation.

  1. Reject Putinism.

It was startling in the French elections that the only candidates to reject Vladimir Putin were Emmanuel Macron and the Socialist Party’s Benoit Hamon.

Marine Le Pen argued that France should adopt Putin’s economic model (presumably with French oligarchs, an exclusive reliance on energy industries, and widespread corruption). But since Putin is a far-right-wing leader, it at least made sense for Le Pen to voice her support. Also understandable were the warm feelings toward Putin of Francois Fillon, the somewhat more traditional conservative candidate.

Less comprehensible was the position of Melenchon, a critical thinker who had nothing critical to say about Putin’s domestic policies of silencing critics or foreign policies of seizing territory, backing dictators, and hacking into elections in other countries.

Of course, the European left must reject a revived Cold War with Russia. And there are plenty of opportunities to work with Moscow on common interests. But Vladimir Putin and his determined covert operation to undermine the EU and boost far-right political leaders in Europe are a significant threat to the European left (and the European project overall).

  1. Go local, go international.

The left has always been internationalist in perspective. It should continue this tradition by supporting European integration, international efforts to combat climate change, and compassionate policies toward refugees.

But the left, and the European left in particular, must address the local, particular concerns of people throughout the continent. According to 2005 data, only 22 percent of Europeans have moved outside their region or country — compared to 32 percent of Americans who moved outside the state where they were born. A lot of people in Europe, in other words, are not mobile. They have a strong sense of place. The contemporary left has generally been very sensitive to indigenous cultures. Sometimes, however, that principle hasn’t extended to cultures closer to home.

There needs to be a political movement that combines this internationalist perspective with a genuine sensitivity to the local that goes beyond a merely rhetorical adherence to what the EU calls “unity in diversity.”

Upcoming Challenge

The next test for the European left will be the German elections in September. The Social Democratic Party, after nominating Martin Schulz as party head to go up against Angela Merkel, was until recently closing the gap with the Christian Democrats. Then it lost two regional contests in a row. Still, it has a good shot at winning the third, in the most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Mainstream pundits argue that the SPD’s focus on economic inequality isn’t reaching voters more concerned about security, crime, and refugees. In the egalitarian Germany of the past, when it had at one point the lowest income inequality in the world, the SPD’s message might not have resonated. But that Germany no longer exists.

According to a report last year from a German bank,

Whereas in 2000 the top 20 percent of earners were taking in 3.5 times the amount of those in the bottom 20 percent, that ratio has now increased to five times.

Earnings in the bottom ten percent of German society actually decreased significantly in real terms across this period, with an increase in earnings of 6 percent clearly being outpaced by a 24 percent rise in consumer prices.

In contrast the top of German society saw earnings increases of 39 percent.

So, the SPD’s inequality platform, unfortunately, should indeed rally voters.

Neither Putin nor the EU, however, will be much of an issue in the German election: Both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats are wary of the former and enthusiastic about the latter. Given its recent two losses in regional elections, the SPD could probably fine-tune its sensitivity to local issues.

But the key issue for the German left — as with the European left — is to present something new to voters, something authentic, something that goes beyond an unjust status quo. The takeaway from the French elections is that the French want to upend politics as usual. If the left doesn’t come up with an unusual politics of its own, it will be upended as well.

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 10, 2017

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Dividing the Right and Conquering Trump

The resistance to Donald Trump’s presidency has been strong, sustained, and multi-dimensional.

The women’s march after the inauguration deluged DC in a sea of pink hats and generated companion protests in an extraordinary 670 cities around the world. My in-box has been full ever since with calls to converge on the White House to protest against pipeline construction, to rally against the refugee ban, to see the huge Greenpeace banner that read “Resist.” This last weekend, protesters gathered in airports around the country in support of those detained because of Trump’s executive order banning Muslims from seven countries from entering the United States.

This resistance is stirring and heartening. And yet it also seems scripted somehow, as if we’re playing the roles assigned to us.

None of the first moves of the Trump administration is a surprise. The president has been even more audacious and paranoid than expected, but that’s only if you expected him to suddenly become presidential after a lifetime of being, well, a schmuck.

He’s invited his strategic adviser Steve Bannon into the National Security Council, but it’s not as if his noxious views weren’t already represented there by National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. He’s repeatedly disseminated falsehoods — about crowd sizes at inaugurations, about voter fraud in the election — but Trump demonstrated throughout his life an aversion to the truth. He neglected to mention Jewish victims in the annual Holocaust memorial, and then doubled down by having Reince Priebus insist that it wasn’t an oversight. But it was always clear that Trump’s references to the “Judeo” part of “Judeo-Christian” were just a bit of sly misdirection.

Trump and his top advisers must also have known that his executive orders would cause a ruckus — not only among his opponents, but even among some within the Republican Party. Republican senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, for instance, questioned the wisdom of the Muslim ban. More than 100 members of the national security world, including many who served under George W. Bush, also decried the travel order. And then, of course, there’s been the tidal wave of critical reaction from leaders overseas, including U.S. allies.

But here’s the most devious and maddening part of it all. Trump and Bannon want these protests and reactions (though perhaps not on the scale of the initial post-inaugural mobilization). They want to show Trump supporters that the new president is pissing off all the people he promised to piss off during the campaign. That includes activists of various stripes, op-ed columnists, and, naturally, progressive pundits like me. That also includes the Republican Party, particularly the politicians who had the temerity to stand in the way of Trump’s rise to power. And denunciations from all those furriners represent the icing on the cake.

“Anytime you do anything hugely successful that challenges the failed orthodoxy, you’re going to see protests,” Stephen Miller, senior adviser to the president, told CBS.

He’s not just putting the best face on an unpopular executive order. In fact, the Muslim travel ban isn’t unpopular. According to a Reuters poll this week, 48 percent of American voters back the ban versus only 41 percent opposed. That’s a much bigger margin than Trump’s popularity rating or, certainly, his presidential “victory.”

Trump’s moves aren’t only designed to enrage the opposition. Some obey a certain political logic. The targeting of various trade deals helps to peel off some union support. New policies on extraction industries curry favor with the likes of Joe Manchin (D-WV) on coal and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) on the Keystone pipeline. Trump’s promised infrastructure plan appeals to many traditional Democratic constituencies. Trump and his cronies will do whatever they can to pit different Democrats and different protest communities against one another.

Trump wants to sow division and create chaos. The administration — such that it is, given the pause in confirmations and the mass departures of civil servants from government agencies — is in improvisational mode, just as the Trump campaign was during the election. It’s throwing whatever it can out there to see what sticks.

We meanwhile can’t avoid playing our roles as protesters, all the time hoping that sheer numbers can alter the political calculus. If we’re good actors, we can take even the most banal script and turn in a powerhouse performance. But we must also think about the larger drama.

What is the ultimate reveal of the Embarrassment-in-Chief?

Behind the Smoke Screen

Donald Trump is the master of the big con. Seduced by the flash and celebrity of a Trump casino, you didn’t even realize that your pocket was being picked at the roulette table. Don’t let his wife fool you into thinking that he isn’t constantly womanizing. Don’t let his Jewish son-in-law and converted daughter distract you from his flirtations with anti-Semitism. Don’t believe that his name on the cover of a book means that he wrote any of it.

At one level, Trump has done everything in his life for one purpose alone: his own self-aggrandizement. If that were his only motivation as president, the country could weather the next four years of egotistical buffoonery.

The problem is that he’s surrounded himself with a set of hard-right ideologues who will do the actual work of governance. Or perhaps “governance” is not the right word. Perhaps they, too, are constructing an elaborate bait-and-switch. There’s been much speculation that the Trump administration is up to something a great deal more than a few outrageous executive orders, that these are only to distract attention from the real conjurer’s trick.

In an article in Medium, Yonatan Zunger speculates that the Trump administration is testing the waters for a future coup d’état. Challenging the Constitution, bypassing the normal institutions of government, ignoring the courts: The Trump administration is seeing exactly how far it can go to upend the rule of law.

I’m not convinced that a coup is in the works. A tremendous amount of power has been concentrated in the executive branch over the last 15 years. Trump and company haven’t even explored the limits of the power they’ve just inherited. The Republicans control Congress. Trump has just nominated originalist Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. The top ranks of the State Department have been cleared away to prepare for Team Tillerson.

But what does the Trump administration want with all this power?

Trump himself is in it for the ego gratification. His inner circle is a different matter.

Populists of Trump’s ilk are often eyeing the spoils — what political scientists call “mass clientelism.” They use the levers of the state to enrich their own friends and colleagues and hangers-on. Zunger suspects a quid pro quo between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin whereby the elimination of sanctions against the Kremlin is rewarded by the transfer of shares in the Russian state oil company through shell companies into Trump’s hands. The evidence, so far, is scant. More likely will be obscure deals that benefit U.S. oil companies that will then contribute heavily to Trump’s reelection campaign. Either way, it looks as though the United States is finally about to succumb to the resource curse.

Then there’s Trump’s infrastructure plan: a grand opportunity to deliver federal funds into private hands. Or how about hefty private security contracts to Erik Prince, founder of the infamous Blackwater, who just happens to be the brother of Betsy DeVos, the nominee for secretary of education? Tax cuts for the rich, major deals for military suppliers, bonanzas for extraction industries: Trump and his cronies have gotten their hands on an almost limitless source of money.

But that’s only half the story. Bannon and Jeff Sessions and Mike Flynn aren’t interested in mere lucre. They want to save the soul of the country. They want to turn America into a more Christian, more homogenous, more traditional vanguard for the far-right, and that requires keeping away potential immigrants of the “wrong” religion or ethnicity, and even scaring more recent arrivals into considering relocation to more secure countries. They want to create a new political order that will extend well beyond a single term or even two. To do so, however, will require more than a few executive orders, rescinding Obamacare, or even overturning Roe v. Wade. They want to rob the liberal elite — the politicians, the academics, the media — of all political influence. This is nothing short of a revolution.

But revolutions need their sparks. If I were to indulge in speculation, I could imagine that Bannon, Flynn, and others want to provoke another 9/11. They don’t care that the anti-Muslim executive orders enrage Iran and Iraq. They don’t care that they are perfect tool for terrorist recruitment. They don’t care if their executive orders increase the risk of a terrorist attack on the American homeland.

They need concrete proof that America is under direct threat by the outsiders. Only then could they win congressional approval to suspend civil liberties — a la the Patriot Act — and use new powers to control the press, arrest “domestic terrorists,” and go after the “deep state” of those opposed to their rule just as Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been doing in Turkey. Unfortunately, the Islamic State or al-Qaeda would be more than happy to play their part in that particular drama.

Rally Round the Flag

There are two possible ways to defeat Trump. The liberal elite and the rainbow coalition of civil society interests can join hands and somehow use the vehicle of the Democratic Party to win the mid-terms in two years and oust Trump two years after that. Of course, they risk dividing the country even more thoroughly, and their victory may well be a Pyrrhic one if the Trump constituency proves ungovernable. They also might not have the numbers to win in 2020, not in the Electoral College at least.

The other path is to use patriotism against the populists. Stalwarts of the Republican Party like John McCain are old-style patriots. They think of the United States in national terms, not as sectorial interests to be won over (Rust Belt, evangelicals, Southerners). An informal anti-Trump group in the Senate might include McCain, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Dean Heller of Nevada, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Mike Lee of Utah, Rob Portman of Ohio, and of course Susan Collins of Maine. They are conservatives, not revolutionaries. And they are rightly appalled at how Trump is governing so obviously against the national interest.

Yes, we progressives can unite and oppose Trump. We can resist the divide-and-conquer efforts of the new administration. We need to play our parts, and play them well.

But the Trump administration has already anticipated this scenario. It outmaneuvered such a coalition during the presidential election. What they haven’t anticipated is a different strategy: to use divide-and-conquer against them by appealing to a more encompassing patriotism. Painting Trump’s policies as fundamentally opposed to the nation can bring together a much broader swath of the American public and appeal as well to the Trump constituency.

I make this suggestion with a heavy heart. I have a visceral dislike of nationalism, particularly the American variety. I am, at heart, a cosmopolitan. But I just don’t think that cosmopolitanism alone will defeat Trump. If, four years from now, there’s a funeral for the political ambitions of Trump and Bannon, the American flag will be flying over it, and the Star-Spangled Banner will play in the background.

I’m all for the unity of the progressive opposition. But they’ll also need to divide the Republican Party and the Trump constituency.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, February 1, 2017

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Blog Eastern Europe Featured Uncategorized

The Future of Social Movements

Throughout East-Central Europe during the Communist period, social movements were on the margins, repressed by the governments, declared illegal. The exception was Yugoslavia in the 1980s where the women’s movement, the peace movement, and other groups not only operated in the open but had some impact on public policy. This was particularly the case in Slovenia. In 1990, for instance, I was astonished to learn that 40 groups were working on the transformation of a military barracks in the middle of the capital Ljubljana into an alternative political and entertainment space.

But when I visited Ljubljana in the summer of that year, sociologist and social movement activist Tomaz Mastnak told me that I’d already missed the heyday of the social movements. Already by that time, political parties were occupying the public space, and Mastnak was lamenting the degeneration of the political discourse.

When I met with him again in Ljubljana in the summer of 2013, I asked him about the eclipse of the social movements at that time.

“We saw the marginalization of the movements,” he told me as we sat at one of Ljubljana’s many outdoor cafes in the downtown. “I believed at the time that they had ‘fulfilled their historical mission.’ They didn’t have much potential to continue to play an important role in politics because the political space had changed dramatically. All their activities were amateur, voluntary, and strictly independent, at least among the people I was working with. The groups I was involved with were not on the pay list of any services here or abroad. It was volunteer activity. The role of the moral element was big. People thought that they needed to do them because it was the right thing to do, not for career reasons.”

The historical mission was, of course, the transition of Slovenian society to some form of democratic rule. Social movements didn’t disappear from Slovenia. Some groups became professionalized, like the Peace Institute. Other voluntary organizations continued, particularly among the younger generation. But they no longer had the prominence or influence they enjoyed during that brief period in the 1980s.

Over the last 23 years, however, new social movements have emerged around the world to address economic equality (Occupy, the indignados), authoritarian rule (Arab Spring), and a range of civil rights issues (LGBT organizing). These social movements don’t have a common political agenda but they do share a skepticism toward political elites.

“Across the globe, from Chile to the United States, from Spain to Turkey, people are angry and fed up with the current political class,” Mastnak observed. “The global political class has lost its legitimacy. I don’t remember even in the worst years of the Communist period anything comparable in terms of the disdain, the hostility, or the disgust with politics. It’s very hard to expect that any new vision could come out of this political class. Even if it did come, it’s hard to imagine that the population, which has become so disillusioned with politics, would accept it.”

These reactions have not (yet) crystalized in a demand for new political structures. “There are mental shifts in the population about what they want and what they value, which are not necessarily articulated in organizational forms,” he continued. “In Egypt what we see now is a popular uprising against democracy, because democracy has become a system that is unaccountable to the electorate. The purest form of this unaccountable politics is the drone democracy of Obama. This involves secret decisions far beyond the reach of public oversight and that have life-and-death consequences for many people. We are unprepared to think about political and economic responses when democracy, the hegemonic model for the last 200 years, seems to be in deep difficulty.”

Mastnak has published an incisive book on how the history of anti-Turkish sentiment has shaped Europe’s understanding of itself. He has also served as the director of the UN’s Office of the Alliance of Civilizations. He now teaches at UC-Irvine. I asked him whether he would ever consider entering politics.

“Given my expertise, I think that what I could do, which was more important than sitting in an office in government or parliament, has been try to guard the political language,” he replied. “The political language was treated very badly these past 23 years. My parallel is with the grammarians in late antiquity after the Christian emperors took over and dissolved all the schools. They saw themselves as the guardians of the language. They succeeded. Much of what we think and speak is due to their efforts. They saw something very far away but essential.”

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I was in Berlin.

 

Really? Was that just a coincidence?

 

It was not just a coincidence. I spent a lot of time then in the region, and it was a good time to travel around — as you remember yourself. For instance, I was in Prague for the meetings at the Magic Lantern Theater during the Velvet Revolution.

 

Were you there as an observer?

 

Yes. One of my memories, even after the Wall fell and the masses were going across the border into East Germany, I was turned back at the border by the German police. No one could believe that this could happen! There was no explanation. Perhaps it was because I had contacts with the GDR opposition. Once before I was not allowed to enter East Berlin from West Berlin — I was turned away at the border and they had to drive us back to the airport to fly us out. That was in 1988 or so. I remember the wide avenues in East Berlin at that time were all empty. It was a scary feeling. You didn’t see anyone, and you knew that you were being observed.

 

Yes, it was like a de Chirico painting — long streets with maybe only one person on them, usually running away. What impact did you think the fall of the Berlin Wall would have on Yugoslavia? Or were you just thinking about the German context?

 

We thought, those of us in social movements, about the democratic opposition as a movement across borders. Their success was our success. It was an exciting time. I don’t remember having any serious reflections on what it could mean for Yugoslavia. But it was a breakthrough. It was a vindication of the struggles of the previous decades, going back to 1953 in East Germany. But it was not a time when many people had time to reflect on the meaning of what was happening. There was also some democratic triumphalism involved. Soon afterwards, the weaknesses of the movements that triumphed with the fall of the Wall became clear. I’m not talking about secret agreements at a high level. But just looking at the moment where I was involved, there were many blind spots, and very soon those became clear. But still it was great to witness this historical moment.

 

I missed it. I left Poland in July 1989. I passed through Prague in August 1989, and nothing was happening. So I watched all the changes that happened in fall 1989 on TV. Then I returned to the region in March 1990. At the time I interviewed you, you were working on social movements. We talked about new social movements here in Slovenia and the relationship between these movements and the new political parties. When I was in Ljubljana in summer 1990, 40 groups alone were working on the conversion of the military barracks at Metelkova. It was such a small country and a small city, and yet there were so many civic groups. Some people here dismissed this by saying that the civil society scene had been much more vibrant before. Others agreed that it was quite remarkable. Did you see the marginalization of these new social movements and the emergence of new and different movements in the early 1990s?

 

We saw the marginalization of the movements. I believed at the time that they had “fulfilled their historical mission.” They didn’t have much potential to continue to play an important role in politics because the political space had changed dramatically. All their activities were amateur, voluntary, and strictly independent, at least among the people I was working with. The groups I was involved with were not on the pay list of any services here or abroad. It was volunteer activity. The role of the moral element was big. People thought that they needed to do them because it was the right thing to do, not for career reasons.

With the fall of the old regime, the political landscape changed. The marginalization of the movements was the result of the change not the cause of it. The policies from then on were going to be professional. People would soon become interested in politics in order to make a living. The people involved in the movements were for the most part incapable of doing this kind of political work, sitting in parliament and making compromises. And all kinds of people came to the forefront who had been completely silent during the period of democratic upheaval. Many of these people in Slovenia had their own vendettas to pursue or who felt that they had been victimized under the previous regime (the majority had not been). Anti-Communists came to the fore. Ironically in Slovenia, anti-Communism emerged after the fall of Communism. The social movements were not pro-Communist, but no one really cared about anti-Communism in that sense. It was irrelevant. We were alternative. We wanted to create new forms of political action. But new people came to politics who were bitter and hostile. Emigrants returned, quite a lot of them, and some of them had been collaborators with fascism. It became ugly.

There was this Ivan Kramberger, a politician. He was a humanitarian. He made some money and entered politics. He ran for president. He was a completely apolitical man, with no program. He had an ape on his arm. He was killed. They shot him.

 

Who shot him?

 

No one knows. He began to attract too much public attention and support. This was in the early 1990s. There were different stories depending on whether you were talking to followers of one party or another. It was a very bad sign. No one took the assassination very seriously either. It was just pushed aside. But it was a sign of the new realities. Life became very dangerous. Under totalitarianism, basically we were safe. I had to face a trial twice. But it was a trial. I was not kidnapped.

 

It was not the 1950s.

 

And it was not the 1990s either! The mafia came in, and all the negative sides of the transition began to appear. This was the direction in which things began to move.

I supported the formation of the parties because I thought it was a necessary step. But I was not involved in them. I pulled out of politics. I decided that I wouldn’t do that any more. I decided not to continue with the same kind of activity I was involved in before or to change and become a politician. The social movements were out. Some nostalgia about the “good old days” remained, but that wasn’t very helpful.

 

You said 23 years ago that social movements also had a profound cultural impact throughout the region, but particularly in Slovenia. On feminism and gay/lesbian issues, people’s attitudes changed here in a way they didn’t change in Romania, for instance. What happened to that kind of energy?

 

Some of that – feminism and the gay movement — was irreversible. There still are homophobic scandals. You have that anywhere. But the movements had a lasting effect. Another big issue of the 1980s was anti-militarism, which had a big impact on public attitudes toward the army and organized violence. That changed with Slovenia becoming a new state and the argument that it needed an army. In the first parliament, there was still quite a strong position that Slovenia should be demilitarized. That didn’t succeed. It was overridden by the new responsibilities of the state.

Another important change was in the attitudes toward immigrants and refugees from the war in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia. In the first years the welcome was incredible. People were taken in. But the change came with the consistent activity of very small parties. They changed the public attitude. On the one hand, the state administered a genocide with the Erased. The authorities were not brave enough to shed blood to tie the country together. But there was this constitutive crime that was very cohesive for the new elite. And they succeeded in building public support for the military. On the other hand, with the war dragging on and the xenophobic activities of small parties in parliament, which was tolerated by the liberal government, the public attitudes changed. There was a cultural impact, but to believe that the changes were so profound was a misjudgment.

One of the things we talked about in Slovenia, though not so much in other parts of Yugoslavia, was the totalitarian potential in civil society. And that came very much to the fore with the fall of Communism.

 

I talked with Marko Hren, who was quite optimistic about the potential of anti-militarist organizing in that first parliament. He believes that the only reason the movement didn’t succeed was because it lacked information that the executive had about the planned intervention into Slovenia of the JNA and the federal government. The government used that as a rationale for rejecting the demilitarization of Slovenia.

 

But that was not the case. The initiative for the demilitarization of Slovenia was discussed in parliament after Slovenia had established its independence. It wasn’t in response to the Yugoslav army. At that point there was no support among the parties for that option. The Greens were for it, and the Greens were quite strong still, but apart from that, all the big parties were learning what realpolitik meant. Once you are in office, you embrace realpolitik. They didn’t want to expose themselves by supporting such infantile or childish initiatives. The movements were already out at that time, and the parties were not supporting it.

 

Do you think public sentiment, to the extent that you could judge public sentiment, was in favor of demilitarization?

 

It could have gone either way. Maybe that’s an over-optimistic view. I’m speculating but it might have succeeded with a strong PR campaign, which at that time no one was able to do. The Slovene army was of course the symbol of the state. But no one really took the Slovene army seriously — even before we began to send our soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq.

 

The justification of the army became much different. At this point, NATO would not tolerate the demilitarization of Slovenia.

 

Of course not. That was also before Slovenia joined NATO. Now Slovenia is a member. Even with a strong public movement for opting out of NATO, it would have been hard to do anything.

 

Back in 1990, we talked about the confederation and federation options for Yugoslavia. Your position at the time was that the most important thing was to avoid bloodshed, and the question of state structure was a secondary question. Looking back, do you think that there were opportunities, between 1990 and the summer of 1991, when bloodshed could have been minimized with the transition in Yugoslavia? Or do you think it was largely inevitable as a result of the actions of Milosevic and Tudjman?

 

I still believe, but I could be completely wrong — though we’ll be able to find out when the archives are open — that a strong stance by the so-called international community in the last month before the war broke out could have made a big difference. But it was not forthcoming. The international community actually supported the disintegration of the federal state for very different reasons, including misinformation and stupidity. And the international community and the big international players that intervened in Yugoslavia actually incited violence. They played into the hands of those who wanted to unleash violence. It was an awful time, a very difficult historical moment. The question of war was more in the hands of the international community than in the hands of the players here in Yugoslavia. Those international players either failed or they succeeded in their aims — it’s a question of perspective whether they wanted to do certain things or whether it was unintentional.

 

Realistically speaking, the international community was not a well-oiled mechanism. We were talking largely about the United States and Germany.

 

After almost 25 years, I’m beginning to believe that the Germans had plans dating back to 1942-3 when it was thinking about how to organize huge economic spaces in Europe. They also made contingency plans for the defeat of the German army. Maybe I’m exaggerating because of my deep aversion to German politics today. But it’s worth looking at Germany’s plans for European economic organization from the first year of World War II.

 

There was certainly continuity in some of the people from the Nazi period to the post-Nazi period.

 

Yes. I’m sure Germany played a big role that was not so obvious to us as NGO actors. The United States was more on the surface, more transparent. The ex-ambassador to Belgrade admitted that he was fooled. I think he was sincere, but that’s not a compliment to U.S. politics at the time. France had very strange politics with Mitterand still in place. Mitterand was very good and brave in what he did. The Brits, with Hurd and different lords and their plans: each peace plan was a disaster and aggravated the situation. The British couldn’t get out of their colonial mindset. It was a sad chapter in the history of British colonialism.

 

Do you think there was sufficient precedent in international law at the time to justify an actual intervention to prevent violence? We have the precedent now with the Right to Protect, but I don’t want to project that into the past.

 

I would rather not project it into the future either! I don’t know, honestly speaking. But I believe — and we’re in the sphere of belief here – that a strong enough political stance from the West would have sufficed. I don’t think one would need to talk or think about intervention at that stage. It eventually came to an intervention, which I don’t think was very successful.

 

At the time you also said that one of the major reasons you didn’t support Slovenian independence in 1990 was because it would leave Kosovo to the Serbs. As we saw, that unfortunately transpired. Was there anything that a small country like Slovenia could have been done as Yugoslavia was disintegrating to have prevented what happened in Bosnia and Kosovo?

 

Slovenia at that stage could have played a much bigger in international politics because of its knowledge of the region — if it had had a clear stance toward what was happening. Instead of developing such politics and engaging with European players, our politicians began to get carried away with joining Europe and escaping the Balkans. They were caught up in the worst possible fantasies. So, it was a politics that missed an opportunity. Slovenia itself was very fortunate. But after that, it seems that it lost its compass.

 

Or perhaps it lost its compass because it was lucky.

 

Yes, because Slovenia was lucky, it had to pay for that. The goddess Fortune is very capricious.

 

When you look at the region right now, do you see any prospects of countries here reestablishing Yugoslavia: not in name but in an on-the-ground reality through transportation and commercial links.

 

I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. It depends on what will happen with the EU. Some kind of a tighter community might reemerge in this space of former Yugoslavia. But at the same time we should not suppose that the European context will remain the same down the line. Everything might fall apart, and not just in this region here.

 

Yes, many people talk about this possibility, both positively and negatively. I’ve talked to people who see Brussels as overly bureaucratic, even authoritarian, the same as Moscow was for Eastern Europe. That’s the language of Vaclav Klaus and the more nationalist parties in the region. Do you think that the EU has weathered its crisis, even though the EU has seemingly abandoned its earlier principles of equitable development? Can it reestablish its equilibrium?

 

It can reestablish its equilibrium. The question is what will that equilibrium mean. It’s not necessarily a desirable goal. My concern is not bureaucratization. Any political community needs good bureaucracy, good administration.

Also, authoritarianism is not necessarily my top objection to the EU. If you look at what is happening in southern Europe, I would tend to agree with those who see this as a form of colonialism. Greece is a colonized state. What is happening in Greece is incomprehensible. These political moves are incomprehensible within any democratic political framework. A half-informal body somewhere appoints the governments without elections. This is not a democratic deficit. This is the end of democracy. They’re taking out the basic constitutive element of politics.

This is very serious, and it hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. They say that it’s the financial crisis. But the financial crisis is the result of a certain political economic development that has run its course, exhausted its potential. There is no one in the EU that I see who has an understanding, much less a vision, of what is going on. There is a deep need for remodeling how we live. But they are just trying to resolve a crisis. They employ more and more violence and surveillance to accomplish this. I don’t fear authoritarianism. I fear totalitarianism. When you take out the mechanisms of democratic politics, you have unaccountable politics and an attempt to maintain an unsustainable order.

 

Where would you expect the impulse for remodeling to come from? These days, Euroskepticism is on the rise. Where would we find people of vision comparable to the architects of European integration? Do you expect this impulse to come from a certain layer of society or a constellation of countries that have had the experience of this democratic reversal and economic austerity?

 

I’d like to go back to what you said about the vision of the architects of integration. The question is: how good was that vision? They started talking about coal and steel in the 1950s. But coal and steel was already a vision of the 19th century. So their initial vision was already backward-looking, behind the economic development going on in Europe after World War II, which was a big reorganization following the Fordist and partly Keynesian approach of the United States. This initial vision should be reconsidered.

The question of where a different vision can come from is a very difficult one. Across the globe, from Chile to the United States, from Spain to Turkey, people are angry and fed up with the current political class. The global political class has lost its legitimacy. I don’t remember even in the worst years of the Communist period anything comparable in terms of the disdain, the hostility, or the disgust with politics. It’s very hard to expect that any new vision could come out of this political class. Even if it did come, it’s hard to imagine that the population, which has become so disillusioned with politics, would accept it.

But there are mental shifts in the population about what they want and what they value, which are not necessarily articulated in organizational forms. In Egypt what we see now is a popular uprising against democracy, because democracy has become a system that is unaccountable to the electorate. The purest form of this unaccountable politics is the drone democracy of Obama. This involves secret decisions far beyond the reach of public oversight and that have life-and-death consequences for many people. We are unprepared to think about political and economic responses when democracy, the hegemonic model for the last 200 years, seems to be in deep difficulty.

 

And it’s combined with deep difficulties in the economic system. This model that was triumphant after 1989 has hit a crisis in both its major elements. At the time, many of us were arguing that there were deep contradictions between these two elements, the market and democracy, that would lead to the disintegration of the model. One of our critiques at that time was that we were embracing technocracy by ceding all responsibility to a group of professionals who would run politics, with a thin layer of watchdog organizations trying to hold these technocrats accountable. But the technocrats haven’t turned out to be honest and the watchdogs haven’t turned out to be sufficient. So where are we now with this critique of technocracy?

 

Now we have serious politicians promoting technocratic governments. But technocratic governments are not de facto elected. It’s not a question of electing a technocratic government through democratic methods. It’s an imposition against the democratic process. It’s a cousin to the idea that financial speculators know what they are doing with their models and algorithms. One cannot have trust in that. The results, as we can all see, are disastrous.

 

Do you see any promising alternatives in terms of political structures?

 

No. There’s a lot of talk of direct democracy, which I’m sympathetic to as applied to small gatherings. But it’s irrelevant in the broader, global context. More hopeful, especially in the countries that have been hit hardest by the crisis, is a rediscovery of solidarity structures. Maybe something will come out of that. People are also beginning to realize that the really serious issues cannot be solved or dealt with by the markets. We need if not the state then some kind of public authority that replaces the state. The potential of the market at this time is very limited. The really difficult issues require the intervention of public authority.

 

It requires the intervention of public authority at a time when trust in public institutions has declined significantly.

 

There is this anger at the politicians. But the point is often made that these politicians are destroying the state. So there is a differentiation made between the public institutions and the politicians who have hijacked those institutions, who are destroying them for their own private benefits. This to me is promising, though I don’t know what will come out of it.

 

Even radical anti-government activists in the United States make a distinction between the government they hate and the welfare benefits they enjoy. It sounds as though our political authorities are incapable of dealing with our modern reality. These financial instruments, in their complexity, have outstripped the ability of our political institutions to contain them.

 

They have also outstripped the abilities of the economic actors to control them. They are running amok.

 

As you said, the initial impulses and vision of the EU were in a sense backward-looking. Are we going to be able to find a vision either for the EU or political structures in general that is not backward-looking?

 

Those in power are defensive. I don’t see any exceptions. They are more and more willing to use repression to maintain their positions. I’m not saying they’re stupid. They’re intelligent, but they use this intelligence in a limited sense to defend positions that have become untenable. There is no leadership.

 

You made a decision not to go into party politics. I interviewed a lot of people who did the same thing, like Jan Urban. As soon as Civic Forum won the elections, he stepped away from politics. Many people felt, though, that the best people were leaving politics, and only the mediocrities remained. In some sense, the best people didn’t want to become mediocre, because the job demands it. Vaclav Havel was seen as the one exception, someone willing to put up with all the demands of politics and yet maintaining some of his anti-political or naive positions. When you look back, do you think you made the right decision — and I don’t mean just you but everyone who took that particular position?

 

I don’t regret that decision. Maybe it’s self-justification: we often try to find rationalizations for our decisions. Given my expertise, I think that what I could do, which was more important than sitting in an office in government or parliament, has been try to guard the political language. The political language was treated very badly these past 23 years. My parallel is with the grammarians in late antiquity after the Christian emperors took over and dissolved all the schools. They saw themselves as the guardians of the language. They succeeded. Much of what we think and speak is due to their efforts. They saw something very far away but essential.

 

During the Dark Ages.

 

Especially during such a period. But also during the periods of excitement. We’ve had both in the last two decades: lots of excitement and lots of darkness.

 

You made the same point 23 years ago actually when you said you were more interested in the language of politics than in politics itself.

 

Yes, I would still say that.

 

Slovenia is often portrayed as a winner in Eastern Europe. if you look at all the countries in the region, Slovenia has done reasonably well, for instance in terms of GDP per capita. Also, it didn’t suffer for the most part as a result of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Although there have been some unfortunate political deformations in the country, it’s not as bad as Romania or Bulgaria. To what do you attribute this success? And do you think Slovenia has gotten past the worst of it in terms of transition?

 

The story behind Slovenia’s success is that the country had a very energetic and able Communist government, economically speaking. The Communists developed the educational system, produced a qualified labor force, and created an economy that could export products. This model, which was set up in the second half of the 20th century, was still not exhausted at the time of independence. Economists have done research on this, and I’ve been convinced by their research.

By mid-2010, however, that potential was exhausted, and there has been nothing to replace it. The political elite we have is incapable of producing a new model of mobilizing the population for anything. They are destroying the educational system. They are polarizing society. They are bringing out ideological conflicts — actually these conflicts arise out of identity politics. At the same time, they have consolidated their positions in order to plunder what was left of the public wealth. Some of those people have been brought to trial. Looking back, it’s as though a well-organized criminal gang was in power.

The problem is not just the few individuals who have been brought to trial and who in fact committed criminal activities of different kinds but the political environment in which they were able to do this. It’s not one MP who was sent to jail who is the problem but the 80 others who were willing to sit with him in the same House. The economy is now completely devastated, and there is no alternative vision. In a way it was a success story, but that success story is over, and I’m not sure if the worst has come yet. I’m not very optimistic. Of course, things might change. We still don’t have the new government. We are implementing the politics of the former government, which were supposedly diametrically opposed to the politics of this one. We have just one politics and different executioners of that politics. The politics no longer change with the change of administration.

 

Some people call that stability! It’s the stability of a criminal enterprise.

 

It’s the stability of decline. But I might be overly pessimistic. What I see is not very encouraging.

 

Your description of Slovenia doesn’t sound that different from Hungary and Fidesz. You describe these advantages as a resource that had been gradually exhausted.

 

Depleted.

 

As if it were oil under the ground that the Communist government had preserved or built up. But you could look at it the other way around – epidemiologically – as a disease that infected the region and is now emerging in various countries and in various ways. In that way, Slovenia and Hungary are not that different although the political configurations on the face of it are quite different.

 

We could bring in other countries as well, ex-Communist and others. I don’t think there is so much difference in the ways the governments work across Europe today.

 

The technocrats would say in response that the problem is quite simple and it’s just a matter of sequence. They would say that the rule of law was not prioritized over the economic changes, so that the economic changes didn’t take place in an ideal framework. As Serbia begins to deal with its chapters of accession, the EU will prioritize rule of law so that the economic changes take place in a proper legal environment.

 

It’s meaningless if you don’t speak about the law concretely. The economic transformation made legal would only mean that we would legalize what we now call criminal activity. All the complaints of the lack of reform in the labor market or the delays in privatization – they call that the lack of law. For me that’s unconvincing. I’m all for the rule of law. But the rule of law can mean many different things. The technocrats, as you describe their arguments, would simply like to see their politics or their particular economic model translated into law, which to me is not the definition of “rule of law.” The rule of law should be independent of any politics.

 

We don’t have the same kind of corruption in Washington as in Moscow, for instance, because we have simply defined our corruption as legal. We are technically operating within the rule of law. But it still involves the transfer of resources.

 

I want to ask you about Turkey. It’s something you’ve been studying historically. When you look at Turkey today and how it is understood both as a perennial aspirant, sometimes an ambivalent aspirant, to membership to the EU — but also the struggle between secular structures and some kind of political Islam (though I don’t like using that phrase) in the AKP and how that is depicted in the West — how would you connect that to the way that Turks have been portrayed in the European imagination over the last several hundred years?

 

There are a lot of questions in here. First about EU accession with Turkey: that’s mainly the stupidity of the EU that it doesn’t make a bigger effort to coopt Turkey. From whatever angle, it would be in the interests of the EU for Turkey to be a member. How the Turks themselves feel about it is a different question.

What’s happening in Turkey today has actually very little to do with the historical imagination of Turks invading Europe. If you look at the protests in Taksim Square, they’re the same as the demonstrations in Santiago or Sacramento or Athens. The same issues, the same demands: the people on the streets are fighting the same struggles. The government in Turkey is like any other respected government in the West trying to implement economic politics that are destructive of society. The difference is only that the AKP is able to add an element of piety to it to create a kind of Islamic neo-liberalism. The issues, the problems, and the arrogance of those in power are all the same.

 

Are you still working on European understandings of Islam and Turkey?

 

Not really. It’s on the backburner.

 

What’s your research on now?

 

I’m mostly working on Thomas Hobbes and the reception of his political philosophy after his death. He had been forgotten for centuries. He was rediscovered in a very interesting political context to advance the arguments of the political Left in England, Germany, and across Europe. I’m looking at the story from the beginning of this rediscovery to the Nazi reaction to it.

 

You were writing about a particular German author…

 

Carl Schmidt. Yes, I think he’s a very dangerous political author. I’m trying to look at what he did with Hobbes in a specific political context. Unfortunately, he’s one of the authors that the Left, especially in the United States, had embraced at the moment of crisis at the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism.

 

The Left embraced what aspect of his thinking?

 

His critique of liberalism. But his critique of liberalism was from the Nazi position. It’s nice to read a good critique of liberalism, but you have to take into account the context in which he produced it.

 

That has a lot of resonance today, unfortunately, There are many critiques of liberalism in this part of the world coming from the extreme Right. On economics, they sound like Leftists and on social issues like Roma, they sound like Nazis.

 

Liberalism is in crisis. It shares the fate of democracy. The Right is perhaps not only one step but more than one step ahead of the Left in its critique of liberalism. That’s not a compliment to the Left. One cannot say that the critique of liberalism is not due. But it’s important to see from what perspective it is articulated. We, on the Left, are behind, neglectful.

 

We are intellectually behind. More importantly, we are institutionally behind. There is no organization that can reflect or embody a critique of liberalism with an alternative. It’s a double failing. In the essay you contributed to our book on Europe’s New Nationalism, you made an argument about Bosnia that civil society was aligned against the state, and that the state was critical in providing services to ensure the survival of the state. What are your reflections on that argument today, 20 years later, with Bosnia not being a particularly strong state today?

 

That’s a hard question because at the time when we talked I was following the developments in Bosnia very carefully. I had friends there. I can’t say that today. I’m out of touch. What I see is a sad story. Some people from Bosnia would say that what came after the war was in many respects more difficult than the war itself. But I don’t really know enough to make any judgments about that. I don’t know about the civil society there.

 

If you were to apply that argument generally, in terms of similar situations that states find themselves, would you change your argument in any way?

 

I am pro-state. I don’t see any set of institutions replacing the state as the primary form of public authority. The state might be undermined or downsized. But I don’t see a substitute emerging in place of the state. Without the state, in my view, violence is due to emerge, sooner or later. And I don’t see the enforcement of law as something the minimal state can handle. Nor can it deal with questions of social security and environmental protection. We’re living at a time when we need public authority. I would still insist on the state. Civil society simply doesn’t have that capacity. Civil society can feed into state action. It can challenge the state. It can set limits to state action. But it cannot replace it. In Eastern Europe at certain moments we saw the replacement of the state with civil society, which basically just produced a very disorganized state.

 

Your argument stays with me because the Left in the US has become so libertarian in its instincts that it too falls into this belief that civil society is a model for how society should be organized. The last question: when you look back to your arguments in that period, from the late 1980s on, are there any arguments that you’ve reconsidered as a result of subsequent experience?

 

To answer at a very general level, I think I was very naive about democracy and quite uninformed about liberalism. At the time, both democracy and liberalism seemed very clear alternatives to what we were experiencing. But it turned out that things were much messier. These alternatives didn’t offer the answers we hoped naively they would offer.

 

Did that realization come relatively quickly or did it dawn on you later?

 

Soon. I was critical of many aspects of democracy and liberalism even before the fall of the Wall. But I didn’t know nearly enough to fully understand what I was unhappy with: why the problems were problems. But it was clear very fast that at least part of the reason for the political problems that had emerged in Eastern Europe after the fall were due to the weakness of our understanding of democracy and liberalism as alternatives.

 

For people now who are roughly the age you were back then, what kind of advice would you give?

 

I don’t know! Again, I am very much out of touch with the groups that are doing this kind of work. But the impression I have is that they need and work as if nothing really came before them, except perhaps for Marx. I would certainly understand and support anyone who would reject being tutored by my generation. I don’t think we had any real solutions that they should keep and develop. But it would be very useful to know what happened before. Even the people who believe they are making history are cut off from recent history.

 

So, you couldn’t tell them about solutions, but you could tell them about mistakes.

 

I could certainly tell them about mistakes.

 

My last questions are quantitative. When you look back at what has changed or not changed since 1989 until today in Slovenia, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?

 

Two.

 

Same period of time, same scale: but your own personal life?

 

That’s a tricky question. Things have changed a lot.

 

You can play it safe and say five.

 

I can’t quantify that.

 

When you look into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Slovenia on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimist and 10 most optimistic?

 

I wouldn’t go beyond two.

 

 

Ljubljana, August 4, 2013

 

 

Interview (1990)

 

I first met Tomaz Mastnak at the preparatory meeting of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly where he was one of the more vocal participants, especially on the question of oppositionists turned politicians participating in the governing structures of the Assembly. He was considerably more soft-spoken when I talked with him in Ljubljana.

 

Could you describe some of the work that you do?

 

I am a sociologist by profession. I have been researching in to the new social movements in Eastern Europe and I have been involved in the discussions of civil society in this part of the world. On the other hand, I am researching the history of political languages: which focuses not on the ideas but the language in which they are expressed. Politically, I was of course a member of the Communist party in the 1970s. I left it long ago. In the early 1980s I’ve been involved in the new social movements here, the so-called alternative scene: the peace movement, mainly. At the moment I don’t belong to any political party. I’m close to the Liberal party, that’s true. As a kind of advisor. And I’m still active in the social movements here in Ljubljana. Since the military trial in 1988 and later with the results of the elections, the movement somehow disappeared. And we are trying to recreate these activities. On the international scene, I went to many meetings of the independent European peace movement. We have had contacts with people from the East at a time when it was difficult for Westerners to go there. We were in a privileged position at that time and I hope we used it well. And at the moment as you know I am active in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly.

 

I was astounded by the number of groups in the alternative scene in Ljubljana: 40 groups alone working on this conversion of the military barrack. When I voiced optimism at the number of alternative groups in Hungary, I was told that it wasn’t as wonderful as it seemed. Is it as wonderful here as it seems?

 

I would like to explain this with reference to recent history. The distinction of the Slovenian democratization was that it was initiated and carried through by the movements. And the political parties, or political organizations, joined much later, when the basic things had been achieved. Which meant that this scene was quite strong, relatively strong in number given the population of Ljubljana. It was very pluralistic, covering many fields of activities. It was theoretically and intellectually very strong since almost all the able intellectuals of the younger generation joined the movement, not to play a vanguard role but to be part of it. This means that we had a very strong tradition in this respect. And the groups that are now involved in the reestablishing of the network partly grow out of this tradition. They had been involved in the former times. There are some newer which have formed themselves within the institutions of alternative culture. So I would say that 40 groups is not such a surprise. I do not want to think in terms of optimism or pessimism. But they represent a real strength, a real power.

 

The scene has changed with the advent of political parties. Have the movements changed their character because of this trend?

 

The first result of the change in political scene was that the social movements disappeared. But this happened at the time when one cycle of social movements came to an end anyway. We were just starting a discussion on the future of the movement when the military trial and the election intervened. So this discussion of the future was interrupted. So what we are doing now is a kind of reinitiation of the movement, which means that they will partly change or will change character. The most important feature of the changing situation in my view is that the role of the public opinion has changed. Public opinion has been somehow…the parties and political interests have been imposed on public opinion. Which means that very few people listen to arguments; they just ask which party does the person belong to? So it is not a question of arguments that matter, but the question of party affiliation. Whereas in the past, words and arguments really had great strength. So now we have to find now a different way of arguing to be listened to. The other thing is that there is more or less complete freedom of the press now. Which means that there is a great deal of information now, no more taboo themes. Anybody can write or speak on whatever they think appropriate. In order to attract some attention, people have to find scandals: from private life, or they rediscover in rather disgusting way the crimes which are disgusting enough which were committed after the war. So it’s a kind of degeneration.

 

Several alternative movements decided to enter the elections in a coalition. Was that a difficult decision to make? I imagine a lot of people did not want to deal with party politics.

 

I must say that I was not in the country when this initiative took shape. I came only later. At that time, I was of a different opinion than the main protagonist of this list. I namely thought that it would be a good to form a coalition with the Liberal party. The Liberal party was ready to grant all the autonomy to the movements. So there would still be an independent list but they would compete for votes together. As the electoral system was organized such that only parties that got more than 2 or 3 per cent could get MPs, the higher the per cent the more MPs, the social movements could have gained at least 2 MPs. So what happened was a political disaster.

But on the other hand I am glad that this happened. Because politics is important; it matters. And it was a very useful experience to organize, spokespersons had the opportunity to popularize ideas on TV and in national media and so on. I would not like to see a similar thing that would happen here as in East Germany where the fundamentalist attitude toward politics was much stronger within the movement and they simply disappeared from the scene. I am not against politics. I am not against political involvement in the movement. I just think that the distinction between the two modes of activity should be made clear.

 

Many intellectuals told me during my travels that they thought that political parties were a thing of a past. This struck me as odd. Here in these countries, parties had just formed and some people were talking as though they had outlived their usefulness. Have people talked about this idea here as well?

 

I don’t love particularly political parties. But I think that they are still the best way of organizing social interests politically. They are still indispensable. Political democracy is not possible without having the possibility of organized parties. The other thing is that we have experienced here in Yugoslavia a non-party system. It was not just a monolithic one-party system but a system that pretended to be more. The party pretended to be a movement and created a non-political pluralism of interests. Which means that people were urged to say what they think and then these interests were then monopolized by the party. I think that the people whom I met in the East who were advocating a non-party political system, some of whom are in influential positions, are blocking the development of political pluralism, especially the institutionalization of this pluralism. What they have offered instead – a kind of Popular Front organization like the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia or the citizens committees in Poland – I don’t think is good. Because the differences within these organizations are too strong and tensions are too strong. The result is that, in Poland, a person like Walesa appears on the scene advocating in my view dictatorial solutions but speaking democratic language. I’m afraid that the leadership of these popular front organizations simply overestimate their importance. They are very important, not because they have the best people in their ranks, but because other interests or parties can’t appear. The same is happening now in Slovenia. Demos, the coalition of some of the opposition parties, is now declaring itself the embodiment of the national interest. They have simply suspended the identities of the constituted parties on the one hand and on the other hand they are very hostile to all the parties which are outside their coalition. I find this a very dangerous and unhealthy development.

 

One of the reasons why people expressed distaste for parties was the popular disenchantment with the electoral process. People I interviewed in Hungary said that they hoped they would never have to go through another “dogfight” like that again. Is that just a question of first elections or of people having to get used to the dirtiness of politics in general?

 

One is of course first elections. The political scene in our country is not a normalized political scene. It is still to much influenced by the old system, not only by the power of the old forces but by the mentality of the people now in power who can’t get rid of the way of thinking, of organizing. And more or less all the new governments won on the anti-Communist vote not on their political programs. They more or less all of them speak nationalist languages so the political scene is far from normal. Then, of course, many people had invested great hopes in the new developments and they are now getting disappointed. That’s clear. They’re realizing that politics is dirty business. I agree. But that’s something that belongs to politics. One should simply not expect that there will be clean, undirty politics. This is some utopia which can’t bring democratic results. The idea of many of the antagonists of the old regime was to have an uncorrupted politics. Of course all they had established is unrestrained power. Of course the people have different idea about what politics should be regardless of their expectations. And I think that these ideas are not good guidelines to practical politics. And I think that saying “I simply dislike party politics” is not a political statement, it is an aesthetic statement. One should understand what is going on and accept it or oppose it.

 

One problem in this region is the creation of a new group of professional politicians. Has a new class of politicians emerged and does the new Slovenian politician resemble the American politician who has no particular skills other than compromise and self-promotion or the European politician who comes more clearly from the intelligentsia?

 

It is difficult to say because it has only been three months since the elections of the government. It’s clear that a new power elite has been created. If the new power holders could be named politicians is another question. As you have noted, the great majority are without political experience. And they simply have no skills. Here in Slovenia, almost all of the persons in the new power elite are intellectuals. A great number of them are intellectuals who used to be writers or poets and of course they not only don’t think politically, but not sociologically or in terms of political science. They just have their poetic ideas about life. On the other hand, the people coming from social sciences are people who haven’t made a great name in this field: so they are compensating for lack of success there. I would simply call them “ideologists.” They know the language of politics and they use it quite skillfully – but it is simply an ideology. This is again a thing that doesn’t contribute to clarification. Too many of these people are incapable of having dialog with other-minded people or can’t make any compromises with people who belong to other political organizations. They simply have great ideas and they are convinced that they have a mission.

 

They sound like revolutionaries.

 

Yes I would call them revolutionaries. It is a revolutionary mentality.

 

So they are interim politicians as most revolutionaries are.

 

One of the things that I was most upset by was the new power’s prevention of the professionalization of politics. They simply compelled people from politics, mostly from the opposition, to be amateurs. On the other hand, they are employing their MPs in the state apparatus. So they lose all their independence if they are dependent on the party bosses.

 

Let me return to the new social movements. Most countries I have travelled to have been rather conservative: traditional, religious and so on. And they have looked rather suspiciously on new social movements. When street theater was anti-Communist in Poland for example, it was fine, but now alternative culture is viewed rather differently. Is it a similar situation here in Slovenia?

 

I have been convinced that we are living in a quite secular society, relatively modern, in which movements enjoyed great support and great sympathy. Not just in Ljubljana, which is a city, but in the countryside as well. But after the election, political Catholicism re-entered the social and political scene and the Catholic ideologists have the ideology apparatus of the state in their hands. And they have become quite aggressive and intolerant. The first indication was the discussion of abortion earlier this year when Christian Democrats who demanded that a relatively liberal law on abortion should be changed. I would say that of course that everyone has the right to his or her own view on abortion. But I think that it is always a dangerous development when one derives a legal system from ideological or religious or philosophical convictions. And that is exactly what they would like to do: to have an ideological state which will be much more conservative than the older one. So that’s one side of the story. The other is that there is a part of society which is conservative, anti-democratic, intolerant, sexist, homophobic, all of this. And they feel that they can speak their minds now. So they are becoming more loud and aggressive than they used to be. And this might create the impression that they are very strong and represent a considerable segment of society. I don’t think so but maybe I’m wrong. In a way I was happy with the ease in the mid-1980s that feminist or homosexual ideas were accepted in this country. It was only the conservative politicians which opposed these ideas. But the people accepted these ideas, quite tolerably.

 

Why did the people accept these ideas? Because the conservative politicians were skeptical?

 

No. Because all these issues which were opposed by the conservative politicians were an integral part of the democratization. And the democratization was carried through by the movements. So it was perceived as elements of democratizing society. That’s what it was really all about.

 

Marko Hren told me that the government has done several things to rein in the new social movements like closing down clubs. How extensive is this trend?

 

Yes, extensive. A kind of silent repression which turned out to be very effective. People became demoralized, they had no place to go. And still there are no real clubs for alternative culture here in Ljubljana. There are many clubs for people who have lots of money and who like to live that advertised way of American life. That’s OK. That was never a problem. For people who listen to other kind of music, who behave differently, they have always had troubles. At the moment there is one club, or one building could be used for this. But the mayor of the town, who is a militant Catholic, wants to give the building back to its former owners, a Church organization. So we could lose that place as well. The idea nevertheless is to get that military barracks. And it is not surprising that so many groups joined the initiatives. There are just no rooms. It is hasn’t changed. The new regime is similarly hostile.

 

What are the economic views of the alternative scene here? In the U.S., it would be difficult to find punks for instance who would call themselves economic liberals.

 

The Liberal party here has a very social democratic program. So it isn’t a freemarketeering party. Of course it is for a market economy. But it is quite aware that regulation and a good social policy is needed. As far as the movement is concerned, it is difficult to talk of their economic ideas. Because the preconditions for their economic activities didn’t exist. Of course there was a small production of radio, tapes, posters, videos. But they couldn’t earn their living this way. Now they have to think other sources of income. The movements used to get different subsidies for alternative culture, not a lot, but at least enough not to die. And the movement as such had very good relations with the former youth organization, the Liberal party. Which meant that people could get a car could go to a conference in Budapest. Now this situation has changed. In this movement, we thought during one of the recent meetings of asking the great enterprises to help which we could then somehow repay the debt. The movement will have to think more about economics than they previously did.

 

What do you think the government’s attitude toward economic reform?

 

I’m afraid I can’t say anything important. There is a small group in Demos, the smallholders or small businessmen. They advocate the most superficial ideology of free market and they have influence in Demos. On the other hand, one of the ministers of the economy is quite close to social democratic ideas.

 

Let me ask you about the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. You were at the preparatory meeting in June and recently in Prague for a presidium meeting. How do you feel about the way HCA is moving?

 

It is still ambiguous. But I think that the project is worth it. It is the only institution of international civil society. Despite all of the features which make me and my friends unhappy, it is worth continuing.

 

What are some of those features?

 

The role of the former oppositionists who have become political leaders and they don’t reflect the change. They claim that they are the same people as before. Of course they are, I won’t question their morality. But they are different people. Most of them are doing a different job. They think that they don’t reflect this and then they impose their interests or even the interests of their parties on something which is a civil-social institution. This means of course, minimizing the roles of the movements or citizens’ initiatives which have become marginal anyway.

 

The major argument against this is that prominent people would lend legitimacy and authority to the gathering. How do you respond to this?

 

In a sense, it is of course a reasonable argument. The problem with it is that the idea behind it is mainstream European culture. And in my view, the majority of the movements and citizens simply don’t belong to this mainstream. Whatever that is. And some of our friends from Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries have uncritical views of Europe, what Europe means, and consequently European integration. I think that the moral credibility should be created by the Assembly itself and should not come too much from the prominent people who will not do any work because they are too busy.

 

How do you stand on the confederation vs. federation issue?

 

What I am interested in now is how to prevent bloodshed. In that sense, I am somewhat confused by this confederalist option which may function well enough for Slovenia but which would cause great disturbances in the south. In the same way I am not very sympathetic to the idea of separation for Slovenia at the moment because it would mean leaving Albanians to the mercy of the Serbian government. I simply can’t understand the indifference of the Slovenian government on that issue. It is simply politics. Because what happens in Kosovo has great consequences on Slovene politics. But they present it as though it is happening in a different country. I am not attached to any Yugoslav idea. I can’t imagine how a new Yugoslavia could exist. This formula for confederation will not solve any problems if the result is a new Yugoslavia. As I understand confederation, it is a way of disintegrating Yugoslavia non-violently, to have a certain control of the process of dissolution. On the other hand, talk of federation is even more futile. What I would like to see, and I will say it again, is to prevent bloodshed. I would support any institutional solution which would contribute to this aim. On the other hand, I am not interested in having a Yugoslav state or a Slovene state: this is a secondary question.

 

And on the question of demilitarizing Slovenia?

 

We would like to deconstruct military structures. The question for us is not to have a Yugoslav army or a Slovene national army. They would be equally bad. I could imagine a Slovene army would be a more dangerous option than a Yugoslav army for different reasons. I think that this solution could be put into practice regardless of the future settlement here in this part of the world, regardless of whether Yugoslavia still exists and has a federal army, regardless of whether Slovenia secedes. This could contribute the most to a non-violent solution of conflicts in general, but also non-violent dealing with existing problems. In this time and in this region, this is in my view a realistic options. Unfortunately we have revolutionaries in power who don’t think realistically.

 

But they would say that an increasingly independent Slovenia will need an army to defend “national interests.” Even Switzerland needs an army, they would say. How do you argue against this?

 

On the other hand, this is an obsolete idea of what state sovereignty is. Having an army is not a necessary attribute to state sovereignty. The idea behind sovereignty is the monopoly of the means of violence, not the army. And of course, people are getting caught in this nationalist euphoria. They would like to see everything Slovene, including a Slovene army. How would we argue against this? One, Slovenia is too small, and it would be a great economic burden. It’s such a small country, even if it had an army it couldn’t resist any foreign aggression. There is the question of international promotion of Slovenia. This would surely – if Slovenia would decide to put this idea into practice – attract great attention and support from all over the world. It would be a great experiment whose importance would go far beyond Slovenian borders. The international situation is also very favorable to this project. Hungarians, Austrians, Czechs, and Italians are all speaking of demilitarizing their respective regions. So Slovenia could be a part of this process.

 

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Fighting for Equal Opportunity

Revolutions elevate a new and unexpected group of people to power. In East-Central Europe in 1990, an electrician became the president of Poland, a playwright the president of Czechoslovakia, and a philosopher the president of Bulgaria. After this brief period of the world turned upside down, the professional politicians took over again (or in the case of Vaclav Havel, the playwright morphed into a professional politician). But for a year or two or three, “ordinary” people were suddenly in charge of transforming the country.

Marina Grasse is a biologist who was involved in the independent peace movement in East Germany in the 1980s. I met her in 1990 (when she was Marina Beyer) to talk about the Pankow Peace Circle and how it was adapting to the new circumstances in a democratic East Germany. As the mother of four children, she was also passionately interested in educational reform. In fact, on the evening just before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, she helped to organize a forum on educational reform in East Berlin. They expected 10-20 people. A couple thousand showed up.

Later, in 1990, Grasse joined the newly democratic East German government as a state secretary for equal opportunity. Her confirmation process inadvertently revealed the need for just such a government position.

“There was a coalition between the new East German Social Democratic Party and the old CDU,” she told me in an interview in June 2013 in her apartment in Pankow, a neighborhood in Berlin. “And in this coalition, they agreed that there should be a kind of state secretary responsible for equal opportunities for women and men. They were looking for somebody who could do that. Some people in the Social Democratic faction knew me. So they asked me if I would do that. I did. I didn’t know what a state secretary was, and I didn’t know what “equal opportunity” meant. But nevertheless they invited me. This was such a crazy time. I already had four children at this point, two boys and two girls. I was invited to come to the Volkskammer to introduce myself. I didn’t know why I should go there. But I went there.

They asked me, ‘Now, what are you going to do?’

‘What should I do?’ I asked.

‘You’ll be the state secretary for equal opportunity.’

‘But I don’t know what that is!’

‘It doesn’t matter, we don’t either! Now tell us your biography and some ideas about equal opportunity…’

I didn’t know what to say. But in the end, I said, ‘Okay, equal opportunity for women means that, since probably women are discriminated against, they think they need equal opportunity…’ So I talked for some time about that.

Then it was time for questions, and a man stood up and asked me as the first question. ‘We have heard you are the mother of four children. How do you think you can combine your private responsibilities as a mother with your responsibilities as state secretary?’

And I thought, really, what am I doing here? This is completely stupid! But then another person stood up and said, ‘That’s a very interesting question because in this group there are many men who have two, three, four kids. And never, never, never, never has somebody asked them how they could combine their responsibilities.’

That’s when I understood what it was about, and I agreed to do it. I needed some days to talk with my family and with my husband and with my kids to see if they would agree. Nobody knew what it was all about, but they agreed. As I said, that time was crazy. So I became state secretary for equal opportunity.”

Grasse discovered soon enough that equal opportunity was not on the agenda. The East German parliament, tasked to oversee the transformation of East Germany into a democratic society, very quickly became focused on one issue about everything else: reunification. And reunification, in turn, imposed a very abrupt term limit on all the new members of the East German government. Grasse decided to apply the principles of equal opportunity for women more broadly in the region.

“Then the so-called unification came, and my job was over because the government was over,” Grasse explained. “And I was not so interested to work with the new government. But I was also not so interested in going back to the university. So, together with some women from this Peace Circle and some other friends, we sat down to think about what we should do next. And we decided to set up a project called the East-West European Women’s Network (OWEN). The idea was that after the fall of the Wall, it would be very important that women who are interested in politics and women’s issues to organize a kind of exchange to understand what other society and what it meant to grow up in this other society.”

We talked about the work she and OWEN did in Ukraine, the unfortunate careerism of both the educational system and NGOs, and why change is about people and not ideas.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I remember. You know this was a very exciting time full of hope. And in the DDR that was the time of many citizen…

 

Burgerbewegung? Citizens’ movements?

 

Yes, Burgerbewegung. I was working at the university, and I was always interested in education. In spring 1989, not only in our university but in also in many other places in the DDR, people set up citizens’ initiatives for changing the educational system because there were a lot of things that we didn’t like. The Neues Forum also had an interest in the education field. So we decided to organize an open forum about what kind of education we would like to have for our kids, for the next generation. We organized this in a big conference hall in the Alexanderplatz. We didn’t know who would come because there was no e-mail and no Internet. We held it on November 9. 1989. And it was scheduled to start at 6 pm. I was one of the few who were helping to organize it. We thought maybe 10 people would came, maybe 20. And it was completely full.

 

So, like a hundred people?

 

It was two or three thousand people.

 

Two or three thousand people?!

 

They came from cities all over of the DDR. There were teachers, students, parents, young people… it was completely full. And together with some colleagues of mine I had to moderate it. Our idea was that people could stand up and talk about their experience and nothing more. People started to do that, and it was very surprising that the others were listening. For many of them, it was the first time that they talked in the public. But they had the courage to do that. And all of us there were just listening. And it was not easy to listen. And then around –

 

Why was it not easy to listen?

 

Because people were talking about very different experiences. Therefore it was not easy to keep an atmosphere where the people in the audience didn’t say, “No, you’re wrong,” or were disgusted by something someone said. It was about experiences, not about wrong and right. It was about us. It was very important, again and again, to say, “This is about us.”

We started around 7 pm, and then it was 8:30, and something was going on. People were running around, coming and going. I asked my colleague to go and to ask, “What’s going on?” And he came back, and he said, “The Wall fell down.” I don’t think I understood what he said because I answered, “It doesn’t matter, we’ll continue.” After another 30 minutes, the hall was empty.

 

Everybody just started leaving…?

 

Around maybe 30 or 40 people decided to stay. For me that was a shock. And I understood that it was over. The DDR was just over. And I started to cry. Because for me that was… I thought we really had a chance. A friend of mine came up from Dresden that night, and she said, “Oh, the Wall came down, let’s go!” But I was not interested in doing that. I was very, very angry. I was very disappointed, very angry, very worried. And so we ended up staying at home. It was already very very late. Then my husband came home and said to me, “Oh, you have heard? The Wall came down! It’s over.” And then we started to discuss, and I was really very angry. We went to bed around 1 am.

Then somebody knocked at the door. It was our very close friends who had left East Berlin for West Berlin in the 1980s. And they said, “Come on, open up, let’s go!” And so, I decided to go with them to go into the West. We had a wonderful night. In the end we had a wonderful night, and then we crossed back. So, something opened and something closed. And I would say I’m still in the same situation, still trying to understand what it means to say goodbye to something and whether to welcome something else.

 

That’s quite an experience.

 

Yes, I would say it was very symbolic. In the end, I’m happy that I could be a part of this kind of event.

 

Tell me a little bit about how you got involved in the Pankow Peace Circle?

 

Hans Misselwitz and I were old friends. I met him again in the 1970s, in 1975 or 1976. He’d formed with other people a little circle, the so-called Adorno Circle, and he invited me to go there. It was self-organized and very interesting. We talked about the Avant-Garde in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and about philosophy, and so on. Then in the 1970s, Hans and Ruth, and me also, we all had children. In 1981, there was a new phase, this nuclear policy of over-kill. And we had a feeling that it was time to do something. It was not enough to sit down and to talk. We had to do something. I had two sons at the time, and I was really afraid. At school, there was more and more of this “creating an enemy” picture. I come from a family that was really fed up with any kind of war. So I was really afraid. I could see that these little boys were a little fascinated with these bombs, and I could see how easy it would be to instrumentalize this feeling.

At this time Ruth was already in this community here, and she thought it was a great opportunity at least to invite people from society to talk about their own life and what they were afraid of. We organized the first meeting in November 1981. And after this we invited people who were interested in continuing. So people came. And that was the beginning of this Pankower Friedenskreis, the Pankow Peace Circle.

 

And at that time you were at university?

 

No, at that time I worked in the Academy of Science. I’m a biologist, as you already know. I changed my job a little later to the university. And also Hans, he worked at the Academy at this time. He was also a biologist. I specialized in behavioral science, and I think he did biophysics.

 

Were you worried about losing your job when you became involved in the Peace Circle?

 

I never lost my job, but of course I did get into a little trouble. I expected to get into trouble since I was getting involved in something that the government didn’t really like. So, I was not really afraid. Also, there was my family background. My grandfather and other people in my family were in the resistance during the Nazi time. So for me, I felt that I had to do it. But I wouldn’t say that I’m a “victim” of the system. If you decide to do something that is not very opportune, sometimes you get trouble. And I was a little afraid that they could take me away for some time – and I had these two boys. So we organized something so that it would be clear what would happen with the kids. That was important. It was also quite clear that the Stasi was there, in the Circle.

 

You even knew who it was?

 

Yes, we knew. In the end, we were disappointed. I was disappointed. But if I had been on the other side, I would have done it in the same way. It’s very logical. It’s a very very odd story to break somebody this way.

 

When did you become interested in reforming the educational system?

 

Ever since I went to school myself! Not really, but I never really liked to go to school because I was always a little afraid there. When I finished school and I took my Abitur, I decided to become a teacher, and I studied for two years in Potsdam. During those two years I noticed that it would be a little too much to reform the education system just by myself. I would need to have at least some other friends who are also interested to do it. Then at the end of the 1980s, it became clear to me that it was time to do something. Education is such a crucial thing. I’m very close connected to Paulo Freire. Also during the 1980s, when we had different circles and this peace group, I was in a group devoted to peace education. That was when I started to read Freire. That’s when I began to understand that education is about emancipation, and about consciousness, and it’s not about this “boom, boom, boom”…

 

Pouring information into people’s heads…

 

Yes, people are not empty vessels. I think education is an instrument, and you can make people completely stupid or you can make them very brilliant.

 

After 1989 did any of the aspects of the emancipatory side of education enter the new education system?

 

In the united Germany? No. There are some islands. But more and more this educational system is directed toward careers and the labor market. So, people start to think about education only in terms of the labor market, their career, money, and status. There is a lot of manipulation as well, and it’s very specific because it is so liberal. You’re so free. This is what Freire talked a lot about. In the DDR you could feel the pressure. But now you don’t really feel the pressure. In the end, people stop thinking, which is very dangerous.

 

I work now in Neukoelln, a district in Berlin.

 

It’s a poorer district?

 

It’s a very, very poor district, where 80% are migrants. Many of them came from Turkey, from Lebanon and the Arab world. There are also Roma. There you can see what is missing in the education system. It is not about integration – I don’t like this “integration” at all – it’s all about “giving them something.” That makes me a little afraid, to have a next generation that is not educated to feel really responsible. The education is not about dignity. It’s not about how to be a human. It is about knowledge, about some facts. But people don’t understand what all these facts mean. It’s just feeding. Here in this middle-class district, on the other hand, we have more and more private schools, which I don’t think of as a solution. Separating kids from very early on — what kind of society will they create if they’ve never had contact with people from different social backgrounds?

 

Why do the parents send their children to private school?

 

They think it is better. Or so that their wonderful kids will have a much better career. Or because “this education is more liberal.” Or because of personal freedom. But behind this, the parents are afraid.

 

It’s the same problem in the United States.

 

It’s even worse, I would say.

 

Yes, it is. The public schools generally are not as good as in Germany. The problem also is the yardsticks of measurement. You can use the rather simple one of better scores on tests, which is what they use in the United States. The other would be the Freirean model of creating a critical environment.

 

It is important that people understand why things are as they are. This is the idea of education. And it is missing, also in many of the so-called private schools here.

 

I’ll come back to the education. But I’m curious about what happened after that first night, November 9. What happened in the next week or so for you as things were changing so quickly?

 

I still was in the university at that time. And I was involved in education and this group. And then the election came. I was very disappointed with the results of the election. Now I understand the results, but at the time I couldn’t understand why people voted for the CDU.

There was a coalition between the new East German Social Democratic Party and the old CDU. And in this coalition, they agreed that there should be a kind of state secretary responsible for equal opportunities for women and men. They were looking for somebody who could do that. Some people in the Social Democratic faction knew me. So they asked me if I would do that. I did. I didn’t know what a state secretary was, and I didn’t know what “equal opportunity” meant. But nevertheless they invited me. This was such a crazy time. I already had four children at this point, two boys and two girls. I was invited to come to the Volkskammer to introduce myself. I didn’t know why I should go there. But I went there.

They asked me, “Now, what are you going to do?”

“What should I do?” I asked.

“You’ll be the state secretary for equal opportunity.”

“But I don’t know what that is!”

“It doesn’t matter, we don’t either! Now tell us your biography and some ideas about equal opportunity…”

I didn’t know what to say. But in the end, I said, “Okay, equal opportunity for women means that, since probably women are discriminated against, they think they need equal opportunity…” So I talked for some time about that.

Then it was time for questions, and a man stood up and asked me as the first question. “We have heard you are the mother of four children. How do you think you can combine your private responsibilities as a mother with your responsibilities as state secretary?”

And I thought, really, what am I doing here? This is completely stupid! But then another person stood up and said, “That’s a very interesting question because in this group there are many men who have two, three, four kids. And never, never, never, never has somebody asked them how they could combine their responsibilities.”

That’s when I understood what it was about, and I agreed to do it. I needed some days to talk with my family and with my husband and with my kids to see if they would agree. Nobody knew what it was all about, but they agreed. As I said, that time was crazy. So I became state secretary for equal opportunity.

It was very challenging because very soon I could see that nobody was really interested in this topic. This was the time of the parliamentary negotiations around unification. And the idea of equal opportunities was not on the agenda. But nevertheless it was very very interesting because I could see the rules of the game: who set the rules and how it worked. At the beginning, you’re very clear what you want. And then step-by-step you reduce your intention. By the end people are also very afraid. For many of them it was clear that in this so-called “united Germany” they could lose their job. Nobody really knew what would happen. But people from the West, since they knew this society already, were our teachers.

This was not only a time when Germany was changing but the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe. We were blind to the impact of unification on the rest of the world. It was very very risky. And also in East Germany you could see what was going on with the labor market. People lost their jobs. That happened later in in Central and Eastern Europe, and it was not from one minute to the next like it was for us. Also we had this wonderful rich big brother, West Germany, that paid us a little bit. So we could be a little satisfied and say, “Thanks, my brother.” We had to be also a little grateful for all these presents. This was also a rule of the game.

Then the so-called unification came, and my job was over because the government was over. And I was not so interested to work with the new government. But I was also not so interested in going back to the university. So, together with some women from this Peace Circle and some other friends, we sat down to think about what we should do next. And we decided to set up a project called the East-West European Women’s Network (OWEN). The idea was that after the fall of the Wall, it would be very important that women who are interested in politics and women’s issues to organize a kind of exchange to understand what other society and what it meant to grow up in this other society. We did this because we didn’t know very much but also because we had very strong pictures in our head. We created this project, and we were unemployed. There was a lot of money at the beginning for people who were unemployed. If you had a wonderful idea then you could get money. We had a wonderful idea, and we got money. This was in 1992. And I’ve been in this NGO ever since.

 

It’s still going on today?

 

It’s still here. In the 1990s, we saw an elite develop here in Eastern Europe. It wasn’t exactly a new elite. It was a small group of government people who were known in the West as key actors. They were put on a list to travel around and to talk and give papers. These people were more from an intellectual or academic background. I met a lot of them. There were some very clever and very intelligent and very political women. But they had no link to the larger group of people in their countries – the poor people, the people who became unemployed. These were people who had other lives and spoke another language. We could talk about feminism and blah blah blah. But what about these women? Then we realized that poverty is not new in the world. It is a very common phenomenon. Women in other parts of the world were for many many years already forced to survive. So, this was about survival and self-organizing and dignity.

In 1991, I received an invitation from the Goethe Institute to go to the United States to talk about the unification. Through a friend of mine, I made contact with the National Congress of Neighborhood Women. This is a network of grassroots women in the United States that is connected to other networks in the so-called Third World countries. They are inspired by the community organizing idea, connected to the Chicago School of Community Organizing. Their work is very much about the daily needs of women. They invited me to see some of the groups organized according to this philosophy. It was very close to Paulo Friere’s ideas as well. This was a completely new world. It had nothing to do with what I had thought of the United States. It was brilliant. And I tried to bring this idea back to what we started to do in Eastern Europe.

We started to work in the eastern part of Ukraine in the 1990s. It was just like an inferno there, just terrible. And poverty became such a major issue. We created a four-year project to work with women in self-help, community-based groups. This was a great experience. We learned a lot, and through this we could learn the importance of the past. The idea of this self-help group was that it was self-organized and that the women in this group shared the resources they had for the common good. This was also a great challenge because you had to negotiate. And in this process of negotiation, the past became very important. Who was this person in earlier times? Why did she have this kind of status, these connections, while we did not? It was full of conflicts.

Then we started working on something else called “Women’s Memory.” It was not our idea. The idea came from our partners at the first women’s center in Prague.

 

With Jirina Siklova?

 

Yes, with Jirina Siklova. She had the idea to create an international project called “Women’s Memory.” And she asked us to take part in this project. And we were very proud because we noticed that Jirina understood that we came from the same background. We were from the East. The project did 500 or so interviews in all, and we did 120 of them with women from East Germany born between 1920 and 1960. It was three generations, more or less. That was the best history lesson I’d ever had. I realized that my idea of the DDR, even though I’d lived in the country for years, was completely wrong. I heard from all these women who came from quite different backgrounds that I’d never met before, women who worked in factories or in the Genossenschaft (cooperatives). It was a completely different world. It forced us to ask ourselves, “What does it mean if we understand ourselves as feminists but we don’t know about the lives of so many women?” This is again about education and about Freire. You have to change your language, your attitude.

In the 1990s, there were conflicts not only in the former Yugoslavia but also in the former Soviet Union – in the Caucasus, in Nagorno-Karabakh. So that means that change was not so very peaceful. We decided to think about how to combine the idea of feminism and the idea of peace. In 2002, when our network was 10 years old, we invited people from the so-called Third World countries, from the United States, from Eastern Europe, and from the former Soviet Union here to Berlin to a conference — to reflect on what went on during the previous 10 years and what we thought were the most important things to put on the agenda. We decided the most important thing was peace. All of the women from South Africa told us of their great hope for the transformation process but that 10 years later it had become very very difficult. We also talked about xenophobia and Islamophobia. And we concluded that we were in a new system that needed enemies, that kept looking around for enemies.

For the last eight years, we have worked mainly in the international context with peace activists in the former Soviet Union, in Russia and the Caucasus. Because of this experience, we decided that it was important for our network also to look more at what’s going on in our own country because there is a link. It’s not only there, it’s also here, how this society relates to these strangers, to the migrants. Our “migration policy” is more and more about the labor market, and it’s like what it was with slaves: we need you because you have strong teeth or whatever. We were talking about peace, but we weren’t doing it. So we decided to move our little office to Neukoelln.

We are now in a deep crisis. We don’t have any money, and it’s not easy. I’m unemployed, but I’m still working there because I like this kind of work. But I ask myself, “Is this idea of social movements over? Do we need all these NGOs? Do we need all these projects? Did all these NGOs destroy the idea of social movements?” Social movements only work if you keep the idea of solidarity. But this society doesn’t seem to need the idea of solidarity. It needs the idea of business. This civil society sector more and more embraced the idea of business: the peace business, the poverty business.

 

You have to have a business plan to survive in civil society today.

 

Yes, a business plan! In Georgia, it was terrible. And Soros was very big on bringing in all this money so that they could set up the NGOs. And then these organizations started to compete. I understand that there’s a theory behind all this. But I think it was wrong. When the labor market collapsed in this region, many people who were very educated, in various academic fields and so on, lost their jobs or they didn’t get paid. Then in this NGO period a new kind of labor market emerged, so these people tried this new opportunity. But the idea of civil society is not the idea of a labor market. It’s a completely different idea.

 

So the same problem in education–education geared toward career–is reproduced in civil society, which is no longer about empowerment or emancipation, but about career.

 

Yes, it’s about career, and it’s about money. On the one hand, everybody needs a vision, an idea, and hope. So I ask you, what do these young people hope for? But on the other hand, we also have to be realistic. How can you combine your dreams with realism and avoid getting depressed? You have to look for people who are just as crazy as you are.

 

Your point about the NGO culture that has emerged in this part of the world is a good one. One argument is that NGOs are just representatives of neo-liberalism because they take over the state services that that no longer available because the state has shrunk through privatization.

 

I’ve always been critical of that. For example, OWEN refuses any kind of service. But in the end we don’t have any money. Our colleagues are unpaid, and many of them are very educated young women. They need to earn money. And I have to make money too. So it is not easy to find a way.

 

When I was doing conflict resolution training in Korea, I was working with peace groups that also had difficulty raising money. One possibility was to continue to do social movement work but also have a paying job doing conflict resolution or mediation work. It’s still working on peace issues, but it’s a slightly different focus. Instead of combining movement work and career work in one NGO, you continued to do unpaid movement work and a paying job in a related field. Maybe that’s a third way of resolving this issue.

 

The risk is that you set up this situation in which you have the word of the experts and then you have the word of the people who are really in the conflict. Freire’s idea was that “we” are not the experts but “they” are the experts. This is so difficult, but I always try to keep in mind that I am not an expert. I am privileged. I’m still privileged. I’m not ashamed to be privileged, but still I am privileged. I live in this wonderful flat. And they are the experts. When working in Neukoelln, we try to do something like confidence-building in our relationship to women who live in this district. It’s not easy to get their confidence, and I understand why it is. But step-by-step, they start to talk about their daily life. And I understand more and more that I don’t know. I could be an expert at asking good questions and maybe an expert in learning. But I don’t know about them. It’s another world.

 

When you think back to what your perspective was in 1990, how you looked at the world, how is that changed? Have you had major second thoughts or major reappraisals over the last 20 years?

 

In 1990 my perspective on the world was naïve. I couldn’t travel around. I had an idea of the East but nothing beyond that. Now I would say I’m not so naïve. And I’ve noticed that sometimes people who live far away are closer to me than people who live nearby. We have more in common. Now that I can travel around, my perspective is broader. This broader perspective has been painful but it has also allowed me to meet people who give me hope. You can find them everywhere.

Before 1990 it was not so clear to me, but now I realize that the change is about people. I grew up in this society with big ideas of socialism and parties and so on. But the change is not about an idea. It is about people. That kind of change takes time and several generations. We just have to be patient. Maybe there are not so many of us. But you can find us everywhere. You can smell us, I think. It’s more about the nose.

 

Berlin, June 1, 2013

 

Interview (1990)

 

I met with three members of the group: Barbara Hahnchen, Marina Beyer, and Frau Olszewski (I didn’t catch her first name). The group began in 1981 around the issue of the Euromissile deployments though many in the group were interested in other questions such as ecology and peace education. Originally, the members had worked within the church and then decided that there should be a group outside the church that dealt with peace issues. They decided that although they could not influence the deployment of U.S. Cruise and Pershing missiles on West German soil, they could try to prevent the deployment of Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles on East German soil. “It was OK to be critical of the Americans but as soon as we were critical of the Soviet Union, then…” said Marina Beyer. From 1983 on, the Stasi clumsily infiltrated their meetings, sometimes comprising half the audience. Everyone knew who they were. But the Stasi never threw the whole group into jail, fearing that if it did, there would be too much protest. Above all, the Stasi wanted to keep the peace.

Two major events that influenced the growth of the movement were the JPIC process and the legitimization that Gorbachev gave to internal reform when he came to power in 1985. When we discussed events after 1985, the history of the group seemed difficult to separate from the history of the opposition in general.

The 1988 Rosa Luxemburg–Karl Liebknecht demonstration was a turning point. Traditionally a day commemorating the martyred German Communist party leaders (Luxemburg was actually Polish-German), this January event was the scene of a counter-demonstration in 1988. Using Luxemburg quotes to place into ironic contrast the positions of the government, many protestors came out into the open–but these were generally those dissidents who wanted to leave the country. They were arrested, some thrown out of the country, some thrown into jail. What the Stasi had feared the most happened. The arrest of so many people triggered substantial solidarity and the churches were packed with concerned people. The lawyers who chose to defend the activists would eventually become the leaders of the new Germany: Gregor Gysi, Ibrahim Bohme, Lothar de Maiziere, Wolfgang Schnur. Though unquestionably courageous for their decision to defend the activists, these lawyers also had to work with the Stasi. Thus the question has now emerged–to what extent were these soon-to-be politicians compromised by their connections. The key issue has not been whether they talked with the Stasi, but whether they received any money for the work. This was the discovery that precipitated the downfall of Schnur in March.

From this point in 1988 to September 1989, political discontent continued in the churches. Then, after Leipzig, the opposition enjoyed its greatest influence from October 9 to November 9. [I will be going over this history in more detail in the next report when I write up two discussions I had with Leipzig pastors]. After the wall fell, however, it was the Deutschmark that captured people’s attention.

The day we met in Pankow there had been a demonstration in front of the Volkskammer against elected parliamentarians with suspected Stasi connections. One of the women said that the atmosphere at the 10,000 strong demo was like that of old with cries of “Stasi out, Stasi out” reverberating through the square. We talked about the potential for a continued citizen’s movement and they stressed the need for “mature” citizens. The following somewhat paradoxical formulation emerged: a citizen’s movement is necessary to create mature citizens who then in turn create a successful citizens’ movement. Which comes first: the maturity or the movement?

 

 

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Occupy Slovenia

The Occupy movement began in the United States – at a statue of a bull standing in the heart of Wall Street in New York City. It spread quite rapidly to other places around the country and around the world. In many locations, it built on or connected to pre-existing movements that had been working on questions of economic inequality for some time. But for many people, it was their introduction to activism.

In the United States, at least, the movement resisted both conventional leadership and conventional political program. It favored a more decentralized approach to both structure and content. It wasn’t that Occupy lacked a leader or a program. It had plenty of both. Indeed, to quote Walt Whitman, Occupy “contained multitudes.” And, like the poet, it sometimes contradicted itself. But Occupy never promised uniformity or consistency.

Perhaps the chief defect of Occupy had nothing to do with these purported weaknesses. It had to do with process. In many Occupy movements across the United States, the participants could only move forward on projects with the consensus of the group. In a relatively homogenous group, such as Quakers, consensus can be an effective tool for decision-making and group cohesion. But Occupy was far from homogenous. Even the “modified consensus” that some of the groups used, which required 90 percent approval on proposals, frequently came up against a minority bloc determined to dig in its heels.

In Slovenia, the Occupy movement started with a big demonstration on October 15, 2011. It was already getting quite cold in the country, but the protestors managed to maintain their encampment in the capital city of Ljubljana until the spring. Although the actual camp disbanded in mid-May 2012, many of the initiatives begun by Occupy activists continued in a decentralized way.

This O15 movement – named for the October 15 gathering – avoided some of the procedural challenges of the American Occupy movement by sticking to a rather simple rule. “We didn’t search for consensus among everyone who met at the General Assembly,” anthropologist and O15 participant Sara Pistotnik explained. “The forum was open to new initiatives. Even if you came three months after the occupation and you had an idea for a workshop that would then develop into some campaign, you could propose it. As long as there were no strong ethical objections, you could proceed.”

She continued, “If you had a campaign on housing or the deinstitutionalization of people from mental institutions, then you had the autonomy to do that work, also because you had some experience dealing with this issue before. For us it would be unproductive to try to achieve consensus around these really specific social issues. And it would be a big shame to try to unify them into some common campaign.”

David Brown, who has been in Slovenia as both a researcher and an activist, compared the situation to the U.S. movement. “We met with Occupy Maine from the university,” he told me. “They were basically saying that the movement in Maine didn’t do anything. They had interesting discussions around various topics. But every time they had substantive debates about what to do, there were people who said, ‘That’s stupid. I don’t understand the point.’ And they were shut down. But it went very smoothly here in Ljubljana because we had this mechanism of just go and do it.”

Both Sara Pistotnik and David Brown have been active with Rog, a center for social activism in Ljubljana. Activists have been squatting this former bicycle factory for several years, and it has become a space for radical politics and art comparable to what Metelkova was for the previous generation. Ljubljana has this activist advantage over most other cities. Squatters have been involved in their own indigenous “occupy” movements since the early 1990s.

Back in October, we met at a bar in Ljubljana to talk about Rog, a topic I’d discussed with Sara four years before. Over beer and grilled meat, we also talked about the nature of social movements, the status of the Erased, and the virtues of street theater like the Clown Army.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

Sara Pistotnik: I don’t know if I remember the day. I visualize the moment but probably from the tapes afterward.

David Brown: I was in France when the Wall came down. I don’t have any distinct memories either except seeing the images on TV. I remember it being addressed in school. I was in third grade. I remember realizing that it had happened. But the significance wasn’t so strong for me.

 

How did you get involved in social movements?

 

Sara Pistotnik: I was working for a small company dealing with arts but in an engaged kind of way. I got an assignment to work on a script for a documentary on the Erased. Since I’m an anthropologist I was supposed to do some research and interviews with the Erased. Through this research, I met everyone involved in this campaign in 2005. Slowly I got involved in this campaign and then in other campaigns. In 2006, I got involved in Rog. Becoming part of that space was very important for me then.

 

Was that a big leap for you? Were you involved in any political action before that?

 

Sara Pistotnik: I was just a regular leftist supporting the manifestations and different things that were happening in Slovenia. But I was not actively involved in organizing them. I knew the scene, but I was not part of it.

David Brown: It was basically through the Social Center at Rog. It was a huge leap. I’d never been involved in any form of activism or political activity prior to coming to Slovenia about a year ago. I’d never been to a demonstration or anything like that. I’d met two activists from the Social Center in the United States through an academic connection. They were presenting some of their work specifically around migration and the Erasure. I was really interested in what they were doing, and that was one of the reasons I chose my program in Italy, because it gave me a chance to come to Ljubljana to work with them.

When I arrived, it was a few weeks before Zuccotti Park was occupied in New York. Within a month, we had the 15th of October (15O), which was a huge demonstration in Ljubljana. Within the Center we decided to organize ourselves. I’d been coming to Social Center meetings because of this connection. I thought I’d write my thesis on migration. But both the Social Center and how the movement emerged and organized itself became so engaging for me that I decided that I should really write about the movement. I was spending all my time in the encampment or the Social Center. That’s how my thesis started focusing on this issue but also how I got locked into the movement.

 

I’d like to get an update on Rog. Last time we talked, Sara, you described how the city put forward a plan for the use of the space, but folks were not happy with it because it didn’t have a large public component. You said the intention of the squat was to remain until some use was developed for the property. You also mentioned the city couldn’t just tear down the factory, because it’s quite old and of historical value, and had to do something with it. So, what’s happened since?

 

Sara Pistotnik: In one sentence: the economic crisis was very positive for Rog. The municipality made a plan and had some public tenders. The idea was later to form this area into a contemporary art center, focused mostly on the so-called creative industries, and to make this into a common space that joins art and economy. The main building, which is a heritage site, would be transformed into this center, but also some shops and garages would be built. The form would be public-private ownership. The municipality would give the space and the building, and the private investors would build all the rest. The municipality has tried to get private investors. But since 2008, the crisis hit Slovenia quite hard, especially in the construction sector. It’s hard to get anyone to invest in such a risky plan. Until they get a private investor, we’re quite safe.

But the municipality could decide to tear down the side buildings, where the Social Center is located, and make a parking lot. Right now we have no evidence that this is happening, though the municipality asked for all the permissions. The tearing down of these side buildings is part of the ecological cleanup. Even if the municipality doesn’t find a private investor, it could still decide to tear down these side buildings and block the area. But the municipality doesn’t have the money provided for this in the budget. There is no dialogue with the municipality. We are tolerated, but there is no negotiating process going on. We are just left alone there for the moment.

 

There were also some artists in studios in the main building.

 

Sara Pistotnik: The main building is experiencing revitalization. There are not just artists in the studios but also a skate park on the first floor. There’s also a concert hall, some graffiti collectives, some breakdance collectives. Despite all odds, the main building is alive. But during the winter, the activities are shut down because the infrastructure is very expensive. And we are still without electricity.

 

You had generators.

 

Sara Pistotnik: We still do. But it’s impossible to heat the big spaces in the main buildings during the winter.

 

Is the level of participation in terms of people roughly the same?

 

Sara Pistotnik: With these new or expanded collectives, participation is a bit bigger than before. But it fluctuates with the seasons. Still, there are no unused spaces. But it’s still precarious because of the infrastructure. The electricity is really expensive and we also have problems with heating.

 

What’s the relationship between Rog and Metelkova?

 

Sara Pistotnik: I think that both Rog and Metelkova are quite complex organisms. In spaces as big as these, which are quite big for a city as small as Ljubljana, you have a really complex way of organizing contacts. The connections between the two are really different. On some points, you have mutual support and on others you have different opinions. Rog is more precarious because of Metelkova because it’s only 500 meters away. One reason to tear down Rog is that Metelkova exists, and a city like Ljubljana doesn’t need another squat as big as this. On the other hand, because Metelkova is more established in the city and has its own history, it’s also positive for Rog, because of all the positive effects of Metelkova on the city itself.

David Brown: There’s nothing in my life experience to compare it to. Coming into both spaces was really a positive experience for me. I have a very different relationship with Metelkova than with Rog. Rog was always the place to go for political organizing, to be in the Social Center. Politically, it’s where I was socialized. I have the keys, so it’s a space where I feel like I can go at any moment, and it doesn’t feel weird if I’m there and someone comes in. At a personal level, Rog is a very empowering experience. I’ve felt really engaged in the space because there wasn’t a strict hierarchy.

Metelkova has been for me the place to go to for some meetings but also where we go to consume alcohol at a party. It’s more of a consumption space than Rog, at least in my experience. But there are also political initiatives organized at Metelkova. And we have a common office established for two days a week at Metelkova that is for precarious workers who are working in decentralized conditions. They can use that space as an office on Wednesday and Thursday.

 

Why did you decide to have that office at Metelkova and not at Rog?

 

David Brown: Because of the electricity. And the Internet. At Rog, we have to run the generator, which is approximately seven euros an hour. And we don’t have a very good Internet connection because we capture a signal from a nearby building and boost it. But it’s unstable. At Metelkova, we have electricity from the city and a proper Internet connection. It’s much easier to use the office there.

 

Do you have more contacts with Metelkova, Sara?

 

Sara Pistotnik: I have more contact with Metelkova because I was born in this city. When I was young, Metelkova was basically the place where I was socialized. It’s important to add that Metelkova often supported our campaigns through solidarity and cooperation by providing a space or helping with benefits.

 

It was interesting when you talked earlier about the gentrified and the non-gentrified sections of Metelkova. Was that part of the original idea of Metelkova, that there were would be a section that was organized politically and another section organized economically?

 

Sara Pistotnik: You should probably talk to someone from Metelkova. But Metelkova is not a completely secure state. It’s not legalized. They’re struggling all the time. It was a sort of compromise where half of the building is in public use and half is grassroots. But that doesn’t mean it will stay like this. Twenty years later, half of the same army barrack complex was left to the grassroots and the city invested in the other half where there’s an art museum and some parts of the ministry of culture. But you can see the visual difference. One half is nice and clean, with yellow facades, and a big open space in the middle, but it’s dead. The other half, the autonomous half is changing all the time, and so many things are happening there.

 

Do you think there’s a tension between NGOs and more informal movements here in Slovenia?

 

Sara Pistotnik: It depends. On a general level, the tension between the movements and the NGOs can be very creative – as long as everybody is aware of each other’s positions and we’re not pretending that this is all one thing or that NGOs are sufficient as a critical left structure. Then it’s possible to have different campaigns and alliances and stay on a creative path. The tensions don’t have to be bad.

Non-institutionalized movements have more space to move from topic to topic, from campaign to campaign. NGOs are more fixed on particular projects. On the other hand, movements have problems with sustainability and continuity because of people’s exhaustion, their overwork, or their need to do other things in life. Of course I would prefer that NGOs would be more radical or flexible. On the other hand, I’m completely aware that they’re trapped in systemic trends and functions. They have a relationship with the state where they see lobbying as a methodology to change things. It would be nice if they understood that movements sometimes have to be more radical and need more space. But that doesn’t mean you have to unite all campaigns to work together.

 

How do you make movements sustainable without institutionalizing them?

 

Sara Pistotnik: This is an ongoing process, and it depends on what’s happening. One part of sustainability is making space for campaigns. Even informal movements need some structure. But that’s not the last answer. Every day, you need to ask yourself how to make engagement joyful.

David Brown: I think that there is almost a contradiction between movement and sustainability. A movement cannot be sustainable if it just sticks with one form of struggle. That’s basically what an NGO does: it shifts only within a really strict framework. But a movement is really alive, in the sense that it is always responding to the objective conditions it encounters. I wouldn’t talk about a movement being sustainable but rather about it being effective and remaining open and moving forward on the issues that it is addressing. Places like Metelkova and Rog are really vital for that.

There is now a tendency to develop online spaces. The movements in Spain have really invested a lot in developing on-line communication. This is important, but it doesn’t replace a physical environment and the ability to sit around a table and discuss with one another and organize people. Places like the Social Center have been places where the migrant community and folks from asylum homes could come without anyone questioning them or asking them why they were there or if their documentation was in order.

I don’t have much connection to the NGO scene here. My only comment is that NGOs didn’t really show up in the movements. This speaks a lot to what Sara was saying about the confines within which the NGOs operate. They’re working on a project, a three-year plan, and all these goals to meet. So it’s really hard when a new context emerges, as it did here on October 15 last year, to shift. If they are already locked into something, there are no resources to be readily engaged on something new.

At the same time, some of the people who were taking part in the movement are really embedded in NGOs and they’re also very critical of NGOs. They successfully point out when NGOs were organizing something and were completely missing what either the movement had done or past movements had done. I’m thinking of this roundtable when one of the organizers in a union of subcontracted workers in the port of Koper was fired. It was pretty obvious that he was fired because of his position as a union organizer. A roundtable was organized at Metelkova, and they didn’t invite anyone from the Social Center, even though the Social Center had been part of organizing this union and also had all this experience in the context of migration. Things like this happen because the there’s so much distance between NGOs and movements. When something happens, NGOs sometimes miss it and only five years later do they have a project on the same topic.

 

Let’s talk about Occupy here. When you mentioned it, you sounded a little skeptical.

 

Sara Pistotnik: I was skeptical not about the methodology but because it started on October 15 in Slovenia. That’s not the best day to start camping here.

It started here with a manifestation on October 15, the global day of actions. We decided, through the assembly, to occupy the square in front of the stock exchange. So, it was part of the global movement with local characteristics. We stayed there until May 15. It was an interesting experience on many levels. It was outdoors, not the usual indoor space, and it was in the middle of the city. It opened up the political space not just because it was in the middle of the city but also because of the content. Through its actions, Occupy here allowed the expression of many marginalized topics. It wasn’t just an encampment. There were different actions and public events. It wasn’t just in front of the stock exchange but in other spaces as well, including the occupation of the faculties of art and social work. Some things were also happening in other parts of Slovenia.

Also interesting was one of it postulates: nobody represents us. That was the message spread all over the world through these encampments. In Slovenia, it was a funny situation because the pre-election campaign began on November 4th, with the election on December 4th. It was fascinating to see which topics came out through Occupy and which topics came out through the official pre-election campaign. They were completely disconnected. We were raising issues like the cuts in social transfers, the debt, the evictions, education and the health care, topics that are now quite crucial. Before, we made a campaign on a specific topic like the Erasure in which one part of the population had their rights violated. Now we’re speaking of a situation in which the whole Slovenian society is having its rights violated. But the pre-election show just went on.

 

In the United States, Occupy did succeed in pushing the topic of inequality into the mainstream debate both in media and eventually politics. Did that happen here as well?

 

Sara Pistotnik: Here there wasn’t a problem with the reaction of the media. The media was really open to it. But it didn’t get into the political discourse. Here the only solution to the crisis is still austerity measures. What we said didn’t become part of official politics. Still, it opened the space so that this topic could become part of the public discourse. We also raised topics like the destigmatization of poverty, the precariousness and the lack of future of our generation.

 

Why did you stop mid-May? It was getting warm out, after all.

 

Sara Pistotnik: It was a practical and logistical decision. A lot of energy went into the logistics of keeping the camp alive. At some point, we decided that it wasn’t so important to keep it centralized. It was more important to disperse these topics into different spaces.

David Brown: By the end of November, the first debate took place about keeping the space open or not. By the time we closed it, it had served its purpose in terms of organizing, and the movement was clearly transforming into other forms that made the camp irrelevant.

 

What was the reaction of the authorities to the encampment?

 

David Brown: It was pretty okay. We didn’t face any resistance at any point in terms of being there. The location was right in front of the stock exchange, on the edge of the main street that cuts through the center of Ljubljana. There’s a lot of business around there: banks, offices, and then the stock exchange itself. There was always a police guard, but we had an ambiguous relationship with the police. Sometimes the police seemed to be protecting us because it’s a very visible location and at night drunks and troublemakers passed through. On the other hand, the police were also there so that we didn’t smash windows or get out of control. But there was never an attempt to close us down by force. Even after certain actions escalated our relationship with the authorities, they never attempted to intervene in the camp itself.

Sara Pistotnik: I think we also had a good political situation at that time. First there were the elections. The mayor’s party participated for the first time in the elections. Basically he won. He should have become prime minister, but he didn’t because he couldn’t form a government. Then he was reelected as mayor. We had a lot of public support at the beginning because we were raising important questions. It would have been problematic if the authorities stormed our encampment. There was a point when the mayor, after he was reelected, could have closed us down, but at that point we were already closing it ourselves. At the moment when 15O was identified as the people in front of the stock exchange, it was really the political moment to dissolve it and go into other spaces.

 

What other spaces?

 

Sara Pistotnik: 15O also uses the Social Center, some universities, public spaces, and so on. It remains a forum for discussion and organizing. It can do this wherever.

David Brown: The structure of the movement consisted of these daily common assemblies that dealt specifically with the logistics of the camp as well as reports on the activities and the workshops. The workshops have continued. For me, the movement became the workshops. The workshops found their own spaces through which to function and organize. A lot of them were at Rog, in public spaces, at the universities.

 

Did you have connections with other similar actions in the region? Zagreb? Belgrade?

 

Sara Pistotnik: There were sporadic manifestations. But there was no occupation that lasted as long as 15O. We made a common action with Occupy Trieste – a common clown army.

 

A clown army? You have to tell me about that!

 

Sara Pistotnik: They trained us to do this. It’s a way to raise issues through being an army of clowns.

 

You dressed as clowns.

 

Sara Pistotnik: More or less.

 

With big noses?

 

Sara Pistotnik: Noses and mustache.

 

I want more details about this clown army! Was it non-verbal?

 

David Brown: A couple guys in Trieste are professionally trained clowns and have been to clown school. They’re also political activists. They use the medium of clowning to raise political questions. They’ve done several actions in Trieste. It’s a kind of a joke on the army format. It’s very regimented. The clown general screams instructions. There’s a translator for the clown army that translates from Italian to Slovene. And we marched through the street as if we were an army. It was very verbal in that sense.

There were several specific actions like the book block. We also made fun of the daily newspaper content for being light and not really dealing with the hard issues. We would all gather with newspapers in our hands and read from them, making completely unintelligible voices — voice over voice over voice — representing how the media is jammed with all this useless information. And we used the books as shields. Whenever we came across symbols of authority — police, certain buildings — we held up the books to shield us. There was a lot of joy. People were laughing and dancing as we moved through the streets.

Sara Pistotnik: We have a good network in the region, with connections to local movements such as the Clown Army action. We also participated in Blockupy Frankfurt in May. This upgraded Occupy blocked the functioning of the financial center in Frankfurt and the European central bank. The event in Frankfurt was quite interesting because there was really a state of emergency. The authorities were so afraid that they closed down everything themselves. There were 30,000 people at the initial manifestation. But then we were basically prohibited from entering the city center. Many people were arrested during just a normal gathering. It was a complete suspension of democracy and freedom of assembly. Basically we couldn’t do anything because the repressive apparatus wouldn’t let us even get together. In the end, it was successful in showing this.

 

What lessons did you bring back to Ljubljana?

 

Sara Pistotnik: One of them is that there is a huge need to work at the European level because the austerity measures are happening throughout. You cannot do anything just on a national level any more. Also, there’s a huge question now about what to do after Occupy. That was last year’s method. Now there are different experiences coming out of the occupations. I don’t know if anyone is thinking about reoccupying anything.

 

Last spring in the United States there was supposed to be a big push to train 100,000 people in nonviolent resistance. A lot of trainings took place. But I don’t know what happened. That effort required organization and leaders, and some folks were not happy about who stepped in to take that leadership position. There is considerable disagreement about what the next steps should be. There was an expectation that there would be more people for the anniversary this fall, so that was disappointing. Beyond that, I really don’t know where the movement is.

 

David Brown: At least out of New York, there were a lot of initiatives that stayed after the occupation ended, particularly around student debt and housing. A really strong movement engaged on these topics produced a lot of interesting documents about how to resist debt collection and eviction, how to reoccupy your own home or open up new homes.

 

I don’t know if you’ve encountered this here but there’s a big class divide in the United States between those affected by foreclosures and evictions and activists with a more middle-class perspective or agenda.

 

Sara Pistotnik: Other problems have been bigger than this one. The Social Center is a place where so many different layers of society meet. I would guess that it’s a question of how you communicate and how open your agenda is. If you close the agenda by saying that this is just a student issue and no one else is part of it, if you pose it in a way that everyone will be a student forever with no life before or after, it will be a closed issue and maybe some other people producing knowledge in other institutes cannot be part of it.

We were really trying to be inclusive. We had a different organization than Wall Street. We had this methodology of democracy of direct action. We didn’t search for consensus among everyone who met at the General Assembly. The forum was open to new initiatives. Even if you came three months after the occupation and you had an idea for a workshop that would then develop into some campaign, you could propose it. As long as there were no strong ethical objections, you could proceed.

 

One of the reasons why that structure was avoided in the United States was because of a fear that the movement would be hijacked. At the very first Occupy meeting in NYC there were anarchists who wanted an open structure and there was International Answer, which is quite Leninist in its orientation: very top-down, very hierarchical, and very skilled in taking over organizations. They tried but failed to take over that initial gathering. Was there concern of hijacking here?

 

Sara Pistotnik: Of course you’re thinking about it and you’re scared of it. But on the other side, there’s the assembly as an everyday structure to which the campaigns and workshops report and where people also make suggestions for new initiatives. If you had a campaign on housing or the deinstitutionalization of people from mental institutions, then you had the autonomy to do that work, also because you had some experience dealing with this issue before. For us it would be unproductive to try to achieve consensus around these really specific social issues. And it would be a big shame to try to unify them into some common campaign.

We had agreement on some basic principles. We didn’t need consensus on where to put the toilet. That would be too exhausting. The problem with consensus is that it’s a nice idea but people don’t have the same power based on their position in society. Not all voices have the same weight. On questions like the mental institutions, you’d probably end up cutting out the most vulnerable people who have the least power in society. But it would be pretty magical to create a completely different environment inside the assembly to give them so much power that this vulnerable part of society would have an equal part.

David Brown: In some ways, the democracy of direct action was the way to overcome the possibility of hijacking. When you take into the account that a lot of people in the movement were being socialized politically for the first time and engaging for the first time with other people who had 10-15 years of experience, there’s a big difference in the positions those people would hold at the assembly. If you had a process of consensus, the really experienced groups would be able to take over the movement and turn the movement into a vehicle for their own agenda. With democracy of direct action, it’s impossible to do that. Whenever someone in the assembly started to pontificate, you had a mechanism for saying, “That’s great. Just organize the workshop. That’s where you can have the content discussion.” Everyone is empowered to work on the issues that are important to them and build consensus through that, rather than in two or three hour common assemblies where you have to build consensus on everything. Our common assemblies rarely lasted more than an hour. There was never a possibility to hijack it. Everyone had room to do their own initiative. It was just a question of how many people came to your workshop. That was more a definition of success than how good you were at presenting it at the assembly.

Sara Pistotnik: It was an experiment, but it was successful. Even if the encampment dissolved, still these workshops could survive in different spaces. We can bring these workshops together again, and we can make space for new workshops. Another point of democracy of direction action: whoever proposes it, does it. There’s no “we should do this or that.” There’s no useless conversation like that.

 

I can’t tell you how often I’ve been frustrated by that in activism in the United States. I don’t want to hear “it would be good if…” You either do it and people join you, or don’t do it!

 

David Brown: When you’re looking for consensus and you empower one body within the movement, like the common assembly, to legitimize actions or workshops, all you need is some small minority of voices that might want to be disruptive or critical or say “I don’t think that’s politically relevant” and then you can’t do anything. I was in Portland, Maine this summer. We met with Occupy Maine from the university. They were basically saying that the movement in Maine didn’t do anything. They had interesting discussions around various topics. But every time they had substantive debates about what to do, there were people who said, “That’s stupid. I don’t understand the point.” And they were shut down. But it went very smoothly here in Ljubljana because we had this mechanism of just go and do it.

Sara Pistotnik: It’s also a mechanism to determine the politically relevant topics. We didn’t have an upfront agenda about what is politically relevant and what we should work on.

 

There are often two different approaches to social movement activism. One is to create our own society and that’s where our focus is. The other is: we try to change society at large and make it look more like what we want it to look like. Those aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but do you have any examples of the second type, of the impact that social movements have had on the world outside?

 

Sara Pistotnik: There are some examples. Rog and Metelkova are also in the middle of the city for a purpose. They would be on the periphery if they wanted just to make a commune of self-contained people. Rog has definitely had an impact on wider society: on the question of the Erasure, which emerged within the movement and only later moved into the NGO sector, or the theme of workers from other parts of Yugoslavia.

 

Have there been changes in legislation?

 

Sara Pistotnik: There were minor changes. But as long as these workers are other-country nationals, as long as they need visas to work here, the situation won’t change. More important is the fact that these issues are now part of the public discourse. Slovenia has long had the image of a successful democratic country that wasn’t involved in the wars in this part of the world. But the movements challenged this image by showing that the transition was not so nice. And now the movements are bringing up the issue of young people not having any opportunities — no flats, jobs, pensions, and so on — all connected to the global capital flows, of course, but also connected to the transition. The movement did a lot to reveal the bad sides of the transition.

 

There was a proposal that got pretty far in 1990 to demilitarize Slovenia. Then the wars began. I’m curious whether that’s still on the agenda of some organizations here.

 

Sara Pistotnik: I wouldn’t say that an anti-war movement exists. I would say that an anti-war movement is part of many campaigns. It’s not something you work directly on, but you strongly disagree with militarization or the international missions that Slovenia is part of, or the purchase of arms. It’s one of the non-negotiable parts of the movement. After the 1990s, when Slovenia was entering the EU, there wasn’t a strong anti-EU campaign, because that was considered too nationalistic, but there was a strong struggle against entering NATO.

 

Finally, in terms of the political situation here in Slovenia, do you see any prospects for social movements to influence these elections? 

 

David Brown: It depends. Different parts of the movement have different ideas about how to engage with the political establishment in Slovenia. That’s probably true in Europe in general, and it’s a debate in the United States too. We had that debate with 15O as well because the first occupation was within a month of the election. Some parts of the movement have sought to build more formal political structures, so that a party, or engaging with a party, was a possibility. For a lot of people, this was not the central issue. The political establishment doesn’t have the guts or the relevance to really engage with the topics that are out there.

So, there’s a bit of cynicism about any candidate from any party, no matter how far left. This 15O movement was so interesting on the level of empowerment. For the first time maybe you weren’t working through representative structures but were working autonomously, engaging in resistance and building something on your own. And then to go into an election and say that you’re going to vote for this person? You’re back to this discourse of how much of your power are you willing to give away.

Sara Pistotnik: I think that we live in a time when it’s basically impossible to engage. This slogan “nobody represents us” is not a caprice. As long as the establishment is searching for solutions that rely on austerity and big decreases in the standard of living, it’s impossible to engage in this formal politics.

David Brown: The movement definitely raised big questions around debt. There’s a growing analysis across Europe that debt is really the mechanism of the crisis, the way that states and the EU and banks are imposing structural changes on society. This is the way in which we are all being disciplined — through debt. This was true of the political parties in the last elections and it’s true of the government now: they see cuts as the only way forward. No one was proposing any alternative. That was so disenfranchising. There was no reason to engage. The politicians were all just saying that they were going to take more away from you than you have now.

Sara Pistotnik: Nobody knows how to proceed because the standard mechanisms of political activity are impossible. We were never a movement that wanted to seize power. But now our analysis is that just being in dialogue with the state is not enough. Even by having a strong political program won’t mean that the cuts won’t be imposed on us. Establishing a political party, or supporting some candidate — even if we say that this is ethically what we want — wouldn’t necessarily be successful. What are the forms in which to organize now? It’s not political parties or communes or squats. We’re not talking about issues like anti-militarism or ecology or feminism or the Erased or migration but the basics of all of our lives. It’s a qualitatively different situation from even 10 years ago. The encampment was a mechanism for poking at society. But now the question is: how to organize it in a more continuous structure.

 

When you look into the near future and you assess the prospects for Slovenia, how do you rate those prospects on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being more pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

 

Sara Pistotnik: I would say it’s in the middle, around five. It depends on the level of organizing. But I wouldn’t be involved in things like this if I were completely pessimistic.

David Brown: We wouldn’t be sitting here if we had a one in mind. But it’s not realistic to give a 10 either. To see things change, not just in Slovenia but in Europe and society in general, it’s going to be a huge struggle, and it will depend on how many people get mobilized.

 

When you look back from 1989 until today, and everything that has changed or not changed, how would you evaluate that on a scale of one to 10, with one being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied.

 

Sara Pistotnik: The situation is definitely worse, because of the change in atmosphere, the feeling of fear, the disappointment, fear, frustration, the lack of perspective. It’s definitely around 3 or 4.

David Brown: I can’t speak about Slovenia because I didn’t grow up here. I grew up in Germany. I haven’t lived there in a while so I don’t know the context so well there at the moment. But if I were to answer this on a general level, I’d say 4 as well. Before I got more actively engaged, I would have had a more positive view. But once you unpack the financial crisis, especially at the micro level, and see how devastating it is, and you learn about the process of privatization and the impact that it has had, then you realize that it didn’t go in a good way at all. I’d say 4 because there hasn’t been a complete repression of alternatives. And you see that there is a lot of movement in some places, which has grown since 2008, and a lot of positive things have resulted from that.

 

Your own personal life: same scale, same time frame.

 

Sara Pistotnik: This is hard question. I would say it’s 7 or 8. It depends on the day. If I’m questioning my future, in comparison with the past, then there’s quite a lot of reasons not to be so optimistic. On the other hand, I don’t see my life as not being fulfilled or having potential. So, maybe even 9 in the future.

David Brown: I’d have to say something like 5.

 

Ljubljana, October 19, 2012

 

Interview with Sara Pistotnik (2008)

 

ON THE ERASED

According to the official numbers from the first press conference of the Ministry of Interior in 2002, there are 18,305 Erased in Slovenia. Altogether, around 29,000 people were erased. Approximately 10,000 left the country soon after the independence of Slovenia in 1991; 18,000 stayed. Since than, around 14,000 people have regained some status – citizenship, permanent or temporary. For about 4,000 Erased, we don’t know where they are. There are some indications that the number is much higher, but it is impossible to know. Also it’s necessary to look at the whole family. In some families, only one person was erased. But the whole family was affected.

We’ve been working for three years on a regular basis to find people without status. The official government statement that there are no Erased without status is not true.

Some people were deported. We have a document from 1992 that says for those people without valid documents, to “take them to the border and leave them there.” Many people lost jobs, apartments. They couldn’t afford to stay here. Some people asked for refugee status in Germany and other European countries. Some people wanted to come back but couldn’t. There are many still in Bosnia. One problem is that some children born in Slovenia are still not recognized as Bosnian citizens.

The goal of many of the Erased is to see that the people responsible for the Erasure are punished. They want an apology. But some want compensation.

When I was growing up, I did not think about what it meant to be Slovenian. I think of Slovenia as my homeland. It was much harder in the beginning of the 1990s. There was a lot of disapproval of southern people. It wasn’t just disapproval. There was a lot of despising of southern people. But the situation has calmed down. The war is over. Public opinion has changed, and people are not so nationalistic any longer.

ON ROG

Rog was occupied in March 2006. Many in the crew that occupied the Social Center Rog were dealing with the Erased question, some since 2003. Personally, I’ve been involved since 2005.

Rog had been a bicycle factory that was closed at the beginning of the transition and had sat empty for 15 years. Nobody bothered with it. Then various groups came together and decided to open Rog. We only planned to use it temporarily until the municipality decided what to do with it. We thought it was a shame that it was falling apart, that no one was using it. When there are good plans to turn it over to public use, then we will leave.

Rog is open to people who are engaged in cultural or political production, people who are inventive. The main structure here is the Rog Assembly. We are non-hierarchical. We are also trying to work on a new concept of the commons that goes beyond public and private.

At the beginning there were many of us. We had electricity for some of the time. Then came a year and half without electricity. Now we’re on generators. There are nine groups and some other individuals working here. The building is in really bad condition. It might not look nice now but it was really horrible back then. Remember, we were focusing on its temporary use. So people did not put so much energy and money into a place we were going to leave eventually anyway. It’s been particularly hard for artists. It’s hard for them to produce under these conditions. For instance, it’s hard to heat these big spaces in the main buildings with all the damaged windows.

The municipality decided at the beginning of next year to make a new complex, including a hotel for artists and a center for contemporary art here.  There will be two skyscrapers with upscale flats and shops, a big garage underground, some other buildings, and a center for contemporary art. It’s not what we wanted – something for the common good. Only a small percentage of the center will be public, and the rest would be private. You see, this factory is from the beginning of last century. The city can’t tear it down because of historic preservation. They can’t tear it down but they also don’t want strange people living inside.

We think of Rog as inclusive. This last year we’ve been working mostly on the issue of migrant workers and asylum-seekers. Migrant workers are really exploited here. Their work permits force them to stay connected to employers. They can’t say anything. If they are thrown out of their job, they have to leave the country. They live in private workers’ dorms that are really crowded. They pay 150 euros per month for a bed.

So there are two sides to the city of Ljubljana. On the one side, you see the new investment and the successful new buildings in the city. On the other side, the work is being done by mostly migrant workers, coming mainly from Bosnia but also Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. They are working jobs that Slovenians don’t want to do, mostly construction, at 2.5 euros per hour. They put in long hours. They are here legally so they have certain rights, but practically they will never use these rights. They are slowly working on self-organization. That’s the difference between Rog and NGOs. Self-organization is very important to us, while NGOs are representing and speaking in the name of a group.